Americans are increasingly resigned to the fact that huge government and corporate bureaucracies can gather vast amounts of information about us without our knowledge or consent. Recent reports of the massive telephone and email data collection programs carried out by the National Security Agency only underscored how widespread the use of sophisticated surveillance technologies to monitor the activities of ordinary citizens have become — and how thoroughly they have muddled the traditional distinctions between public and private behavior.
So perhaps it should have come as no surprise that police in Maryland are now tracking the comings-and-goings of millions of motorists traveling on state roads using a network of cameras that automatically read and record the license plate numbers on their cars. The stated purpose of the program, reported last week by the American Civil Liberties Union, is to alert officers when they encounter stolen cars or vehicles driven by people for whom warrants have been issued. The ACLU agreed that both those uses of the technology are legitimate, and if that was all there was to it, there would be little cause for alarm.
But the program does more than look for those suspected of wrongdoing. Like the NSA's PRISM program, which collects and saves virtually all email and Internet traffic between the U.S. and foreign countries in order to identify the tiny fraction of suspicious communications, Maryland's plate surveillance effort scoops up millions of numbers that have no association with criminal activity. The vast majority of plate numbers captured by the cameras belong to people who have done nothing wrong at all. Yet the information embedded in the images is stored in databases that even months or years later can be accessed to reconstruct everywhere those drivers have traveled.
The ACLU called this kind of indiscriminate data gathering a serious threat to Americans' privacy rights, and it's easy to see why. As a federal appeals court judge wrote in a recent case that raised similar issues involving police who installed a GPS tracking device on a suspect's vehicle without a warrant: "A person who knows all of another's travels can deduce whether he is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts."
Of the 29 million plate numbers captured in Maryland between January and May 2012, the ACLU noted, just 0.2 percent were associated with any crime, violation or suspicious incident. And of that minuscule amount, the overwhelming majority — 97 percent — were for infractions such as a suspended or revoked registration or a violation of the state's vehicle emissions inspection program. For every million plates read by the cameras, only 47 were associated with potentially more serious crimes such a stolen vehicle or license plate, a wanted person or a violent gang, terrorist group or sex offender, and its unclear whether any of those "hits" even helped police catch criminals or prevent a crime because not every alert results in an arrest.
Doubtless there are many people who think the increasingly heavy surveillance we live under is just the price we pay for security in an age of terrorist threats and lethal random violence. And it can be argued that people have no real expectation of privacy when they travel on public roads, where anyone who sees them can easily jot down their plate numbers, even though no private citizen has the resources to record the millions of digits captured by the state's automatic cameras.
But the open-ended storage of such data is an invitation for abuse. It's not just a theoretical concern that officials might misuse government resources to spy on people who have done nothing wrong; it has happened right here in Maryland with former Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold's use of county police officers to compile dossiers on his political opponents, or with the state police's surveillance several years ago of peace and anti-death penalty activists.
Legislators need to step in to establish clear guidelines limiting the use of license plate readers to specific operations where police reasonably believe such information is relevant, and to prohibit the storage of data that is not related to a specific law enforcement action. There's no reason for the state to track and keep detailed information about the travel habits of innocent people who have committed no crimes and pose no threat to public safety. As long as they abide by the law, where they go and what they do when they get there should be none of the government's business.