“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist” is a quote generally attributed to Charles Baudelaire – or possibly Keyser Söze – depending on who you ask on the internet.
Something similar can be said about Big Brother.
When you think about what our emerging surveillance state will look like, you think “1984.” You imagine East Germany powered by Google and Amazon. You recall your favorite dystopian sci-fi film—or maybe horror stories of China’s social credit system. Thoughts of a frustrated middle-aged police chief from a mid-sized Midwestern town attempting to procure security cameras with innovative new features probably don’t come to mind. You definitely don’t think of a guy in a lawn chair jotting down the license plate numbers of passing vehicles in a notebook. And that’s partly how the surveillance state is going to emerge as it creeps its way into one small town at a time.
Whether a surveillance state is the end goal is hard to say. The police chief of Pawnee, Indiana probably isn’t plotting the development of his own mini-Oceania. But, 18,000-plus mini-Oceanias operating across multiple platforms with varying degrees of integration, both locally and nationally, is undoubtedly the direction in which we are heading as salespeople peddle shiny new surveillance gadgets to cities big and small, making often unverified but intuitively appealing claims of how their devices will decrease crime or prove to be useful investigative tools.
Facial recognition tends to be the surveillance gadget that receives the most attention these days. You’ve seen it in movies and maybe feel some unease over visions of government agents sitting in a penumbrous room illuminated only by the faint glow of countless monitors with little boxes tracking the faces of every person walking down a busy city street. Likely, by now, you’ve also probably heard of facial recognition being used for relatively petty purposes or leading to incidents in which innocent people were harassed or arrested because a program made a mistake. Maybe you’ve even been following the efforts to ban the technology.
Yet, other surveillance gadgets that aren’t quite as sexy or as prevalent in pop culture manage to remain under the radar of even the most privacy-conscious as they are promoted through law enforcement peer referral programs organized by surveillance gadget companies seeking to have their devices in every town in America.
Some, such as gunshot detection devices, may seem relatively benign, although there have been concerns they might pick up bits of conversation on quiet streets. Others, such as cell site simulators, are quite a bit more intrusive as they can be used by law enforcement to monitor the location of people through their cell phones, as well as collect metadata from their calls and a considerable amount of other information.
Automatic license plate readers, or ALPRs, can be used to log a person’s movements through the license plates of their vehicles. Given the exponential increase in their use over the past few years and the ease with which data from the cameras of some vendors are integrated, they also pose a threat to privacy on par with facial recognition and cell site simulators.
Often positioned on street lights, traffic lights, independent structures, or police vehicles, ALPRs are a type of camera that captures the license plate and other identifying information of passing vehicles before comparing the information in real time to “hot lists” of vehicles actively being sought by law enforcement and transmitting the information to a searchable database. ALPRs sold by some companies are even said to be able to assess a car’s driving patterns to determine whether the person behind the wheel is “driving like a criminal.”
Depending on the vendor and the particulars of their contract with a municipality or private entity leasing the cameras from them, the information the cameras collect is maintained usually for thirty days but sometimes for a period of months or even years.
Although on the surface this may sound relatively unintrusive, leading to places such as Nashville approving ALPRs while rejecting facial recognition, what this ultimately does is create a searchable database for the timestamped rough location of any individual who regularly travels using a single vehicle—in other words, most Americans especially those living outside of major cities.
Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the ACLU’s national office, who has written extensively on matters pertaining to technology, privacy, and surveillance, stated in a 2023 phone interview, “There’s no question that if you get enough license plate readers and you got one on every block, that put together … can create a GPS-tracker-like-record of my movement and even if there’s, you know, only one every ten miles and [I’m] driving around the country, I’m driving from Texas to California or what have you, that can be very revealing as well.”
Subsequently, organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group, and the Brennan Center for Justice, a self-described “non-partisan law and policy institute,” have expressed concerns that the devices could be used to track the activities of protesters and activists.
If ALPRs were as prevalent during lockdowns as they are now, it’s not difficult to imagine at least some governors or mayors using them to track and reprimand those who dared violate Corona law.
Furthermore, sometimes the devices do make mistakes, leading to claims by individuals and families that they were psychologically traumatized after they were pulled over, held at gunpoint, searched, and handcuffed by police essentially due to a computer error.
As for the benefits they provide in terms of making communities safer, quantitative data demonstrating their success tends to be lacking.
The University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights released a report in December 2022 indicating hit rates for ALPRs, or the percentage of license plates photographed by ALPRs within a municipality that are associated with a vehicle being sought by law enforcement, tend to fall below 0.1 percent, meaning a lot of data have to be collected on a lot of law-abiding citizens in order for the devices to be of any use. Moreover, even when they do aid law enforcement in finding a wanted vehicle, the end results still can be somewhat underwhelming.
The University of Illinois’ Community Data Clinic, for example, in a preliminary report dated Fall 2023, indicated that of 54 instances law enforcement in Champaign, one of the two cities U of I calls home, accessed data from their ALPRs within a particular period, only 31 of those instances likely involved felonies, most of which did not involve a firearm. The University of Illinois report went on to indicate only ten of those instances led to an arrest or an arrest warrant and only two of those arrests led to formal charges.
As demonstrated at an October 2021 town hall regarding ALPRs in Urbana, Illinois, Champaign’s sister city, even proponents of the devices struggle to produce a single study showing that the cameras deter or prevent gun violence, which is often one of the main reasons communities turn to ALPRs in the first place.
However, when vendor reps and local law enforcement are trying to gain approval from city councils and assuage the fears of wary citizens, the surveillance potential of the devices, along with their questionable effectiveness and the devastating consequences that can follow when one makes a mistake, tend not to be what they lead with.
Instead, proponents emphasize how common they are in surrounding cities, cite anecdotal evidence of their utility, and try to present ALPRs as non-threatening, normal, and perhaps even a little old-fashioned.
You have nothing to worry about, you’re told. The town down the road brought them in six months back. Chief Jones over there said they helped solve that murder from the news. And, by the way, they’re not really that much different from a concerned citizen just keeping an eye on things.
At the town hall in Urbana, for example, then-police chief, Bryant Seraphin, worked to dismiss the notion that ALPRs actually pose a threat to privacy or even constitute a surveillance tool.
“They [ALPRs] are not surveillance cameras,” stated Seraphin early in the event. “I cannot pan, tilt, [or] zoom them. There’s no live looking to see what’s happening at the corner …” he explained.
Repeatedly, he emphasized that ALPRs do not capture any information about the person driving a car or automatically link to information about the person to whom a vehicle is registered. Their ubiquity in the area was accentuated. Supposed success stories were shared.
To allay any remaining notion that there might be something scary about ALPRs, Seraphin described them with a folksy metaphor: “One of the things that I’ve talked about with these things is that if you pictured somebody sitting in a lawn chair writing down every plate that went by, the date, and the time when they wrote ‘red Toyota ABC123’, and then they would make a phone call and check the databases and then hang up and then go on to the next one—that’s what [an ALPR] does automatically and it can do it over and over again … with incredible speed.”
Yet, when Anita Chan, the director of the University of Illinois Community Data Clinic, proceeded to raise concerns regarding “the potential violation of civil liberties” and how a license plate alone is sufficient for the police to not just find out “where you live and where you work but also … who potentially your friends are, what religious affiliation you might have, essentially where you get medical services … [and] suss out essentially who’s traveling and where,” Seraphin acknowledged all this is possible. However, he assured her with a frustrated chuckle, ALPRs simply provide a notebook that would only be referenced when investigating serious crimes.
By the same logic, facial recognition simply provides a notebook as well. As do cell site simulators. As do any surveillance device. Yet, there is a fundamental question of whether such a notebook should exist. Does the chief of police in Urbana or the sheriff in Pawnee need a notebook containing your approximate location three Thursdays ago at 8:15pm, as well as a record of who attended last week’s political rally, in order to solve a murder? Should he be allowed to keep such a notebook if it might help solve an extra murder in his town each year? If the answer is yes, then what are the limits to the tools he and his department should be afforded?
Furthermore, there is also something a little off about the disarming metaphor of a guy who spends his days sitting around in a lawn chair jotting down the license plate numbers of passing vehicles. Something a little insidious. Something that perhaps Anita Chan was piking up on.
One guy in a lawn chair jotting down license plate numbers is a nosy neighbor, maybe even a neighborhood crank, but not someone to whom you would pay much attention. When he starts following you around though to the point of knowing who your friends are, where you worship, and when you go to the doctor, he kind of becomes a stalker. But, when he develops the ability to gather this kind of information on everyone, he starts to develop a level of omnipresence and omniscience with which no one should be comfortable—which may be why you’re told he’s just a guy in a lawn chair.
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