A constant stream of revolutionary new technologies erode existing protections, and greatly expanded powers for our security agencies allow the government to peer into our lives without due process or meaningful oversight. Our rights and liberties have undergone constant erosion since 9/11.
More than a decade later, the websites we browse are tracked, our cell phones log our movements, our Internet communications are being read and stored, and the NSA collects records of all of our calls. Things we once thought could only happen in far-away enemy states or distant dystopias are suddenly happening here in America. Sadly, it is no longer so hard to imagine a world straight out of the mind of Philip K. Dick, with personally-tailored advertisements that follow us online, or maybe even pre-crime predictors that turn us all into suspects when we haven’t done anything wrong.
The fact is, privacy laws have failed to keep up with emerging technologies. The goal of the Protecting Civil Liberties in the Digital Age initiative is to ensure that expressive, associational, and privacy rights are strengthened rather than compromised by new technology, and to protect these core democratic rights against intrusive corporate and government practices that rely on new technology to invade these rights.
Time to rein in the Surveillance State: Recent disclosures have shown that the government is regularly tracking all of the calls of almost every ordinary American and spying on a vast but unknown number of Americans’ international calls, text messages, and emails.
You Are Being Tracked: A little noticed surveillance technology, designed to track the movements of every passing driver, is fast proliferating on America’s streets. Automatic license plate readers, mounted on police cars or on objects like road signs and bridges, use small, high-speed cameras to photograph thousands of plates per minute. An ACLU report, based on thousands of pages of documents we received in response to coordinated, nationwide public records requests, reveals how your movements are being tracked.
Modernizing the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA): Since 1986, technology has advanced at breakneck speed while electronic privacy law remained at a standstill. The outdated Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) allows the government to intercept and access a treasure trove of information about who you are, where you go, and what you do, which is being collected by cell phone providers, search engines, social networking sites, and other websites every day.
Cell Phone Location Tracking Public Records Request: In a massive coordinated information-seeking campaign, 34 ACLU affiliates filed over 375 requests in 31 states across the country with local law enforcement agencies large and small that seek to uncover when, why and how they are using cell phone location data to track Americans. What we learned was disturbing.
Think it not happening here in Humboldt County? Check this out from Grant Scott-Goforth The Times-Standard 08/21/2012
The Eureka and Arcata police departments are installing a sophisticated new camera system on patrol cars this week, a pricey upgrade that is lauded by law enforcement but raises privacy concerns for others.
The system, which constantly scans for license plates that have been deemed “wanted” or “of interest,” notifies officers immediately if one is found. Critics contend it can collect data about the locations of citizens.
EPD Lt. Tony Zanotti said a representative from PIPS Technology — which manufactures the cameras — will be in Eureka this week to install them on two patrol cars. APD is outfitting the camera system on one patrol car.
The system, which consists of four mounted cameras on each car, scans the license plates of moving and parked cars, photographs the licenses and runs the information against a national database searching for wanted cars.
Zanotti said the cameras can read thousands of license plates per minute. Hitting on a car of interest will notify the police officer nearly instantly, providing a valuable tool for identifying stolen cars and vehicles that have been implicated in crimes.
The individual departments will also have the ability to input cars that they are seeking for a variety of reasons.
”Maybe we’re looking for a witness, but we didn’t have a good address on that witness,” Zanotti said.
He said an officer typically radios dispatch to check on 10 to 15 license plates on a patrol shift.
”You gotta envision this as four extra sets of eyes looking out on a patrol,” Zanotti said.
The Eureka City Council approved $42,000 toward the purchase of the cameras last month and Mayor Frank Jager, who formerly worked in law enforcement, praised the technology.
”As far as I’m concerned, these are invaluable,” Jager said. “You just don’t have time as an officer to go around to every plate.”
While privacy concerns have been raised, legal experts said the basic functions of the license plate readers are already common practice.
”Randomly running plates is something cops have done for a long time,” University of California Hastings College of the Law professor David Levine said.
He said the underlying idea is whether one has a reasonable expectation of privacy. If the answer is yes, police need a warrant or articulated suspicion to stop or search someone.
”When you have something as public as a license plate, it’s probably not even a search,” Levine said. “From a constitutional point of view, there’s nothing illegal about it.”
Running license plates looking for wanted cars isn’t of particular concern, according to Chris Conley, a technology and civil liberties policy attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.
”If it’s not a hit, that’s the end of it,” Conley said. “They’re just looking for stolen cars more effectively.”
What is of concern is what’s being done with the collected data, Conley said.
Zanotti said the cameras will store — for an unspecified amount of time — photos of every license plate that is scanned, along with the precise location of the scan. This can help police determine what vehicles were around a crime scene after the crime is committed, he said.
Conley said recent court cases have looked at the legality of collecting, storing and sharing location data from personal cell phones.
An aggregate database can profile a person’s comings and goings and location, which can be considered sensitive information, Conley said.
He said there are some similarities between the location information that could be collected by cell phones and license plate tracking, which could be used against people for political or other motives.
Conley said he hasn’t heard of any legal challenges against license plate readers, but said that as the technology becomes more ubiquitous, the subject of tracking locations could be addressed by the courts.
Conley said checks and balances between the police and the public are necessary. At the end of the day, he said, it’s how that data is being used.
Since this Times Standard article appeared in 2012 the Examiner has learned that the use of this technology has been expanded by both Arcata and Eureka Police departments.
It’s just a coincidence that “Capt” Stephens car camera was turned off as Tommy McClain was gunned down in his own front yard