Big Brother is watching you drive


license-plate-reader-2The other week I was waiting for a take-out order with my god-mother-in-law, when I noticed a Boston police car driving along with two scanner-camera thingies mounted on its trunk.

Wondering what the heck they were, I asked Google. And Google told me that they are licence-plate readers.

And they can read 10,000 license plates an hour. Even on cars traveling in the opposite direction. Even at highway speeds.

The impression that the police give is that the scanners are only used to check licence plates against an FBI database that contains plate numbers of stolen cars, criminal suspects, etc. I’m inclined to think that this use is not too troubling: It’s basically a high-tech version of posters of wanted criminals and stolen vehicles. You can see it at work in this YouTube video, where it alerts the officer to a stolen car that was used in an armed robbery.

However, I do wonder whether we know that the information isn’t also being collected in such a way that the government could keep tabs on who is where when. That would be a lot of information on U.S. citizens.

Put that information together with the cell-phone and computer data that the government is also collecting (and how long before face-recognition software makes each of our mugs a licence plate?), and you’ve got some pretty Orwellian possibilities.

Personally, I’m happy the police have the licence-plate scanners to help them find criminals and stolen vehicles, but I’d like to be sure that there’s oversight with accountability to make sure that the information is not abused.

I’d say that’s what we need more generally to deal with the privacy issues that are daily coming to light: accountability. As Hollywood put it 15 years ago: Who’s watching the watchers? (Enemy of the State rentals are probably spiking now; I already heard that sales of 1984 are up 7,000%.)

(Video is supposed to start at 7 min 15 seconds, but I can’t get it to cooperate.)


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