The City of Boulder recently announced the addition of a new weapon to its arsenal in the War on Illegal Parking: the AutoVu license plate recognition system. This cutting edge technology utilizes a portable dash-mounted camera that is capable of photographing and cataloging license plates "as fast as a parking officer is driving, at angles as sharp as 90 degrees" (Daily Camera, 10/27/2010).
A few days ago, the Boulder County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union put out a statement decrying the City's decision to purchase and deploy the $46,000 system. ACLU Chairman Judd Golden cited concerns about the possibility of "mission creep", or the program's scope moving beyond its original goals.
"Are they scanning license plates of cars parked at demonstrations?" Golden said. "How could you be assured they aren't going to have these (images) subpoenaed in civil court to be used in divorce cases?"
Many of you reading this now are shaking your heads thinking, "Oh that nutty, paranoid ACLU! They're always trying to protect the criminals. As long as you haven't done anything wrong, then you have nothing to fear. I don't care if I am under constant surveillance!"
Well, fortunately, this is America and we have a little thing called the Bill of Rights. Therein, the 4th Amendment clearly states, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." Translation: don't scan our license plates unless you have probable cause. That is our guaranteed right to privacy (not because we are doing something wrong, but because we cherish our freedom). The 4th Amendment doesn't include the clause, "as long as you haven't done anything wrong, your privacy will be respected."
If the 4th Amendment isn't worth protecting, then perhaps the Constitution itself isn't really worth much. Maybe this country's Forefathers' vision really isn't worth respecting.
Before you say, "I don't care", please don't be so quick to dismiss the many Americans who have died to let you keep these rights.
Beyond upholding our Constitution, here's another good reason why you should want to avoid this step toward total surveillance: government corruption. If you are willing to admit that there is even the slightest possibility that some government workers may be corrupt, then you can imagine a corrupt government worker using your private info against you. The "As long as you haven't done anything wrong" defense collapses quickly when someone in authority games the system and decides to bust you because he or she happens to dislike you.
City officials have pledged that protections will be added, but also readily admit that data could be used for other investigations as well. The AutoVu website clearly states that the scanner can be used not only to find parking ticket scofflaws, but also to locate stolen vehicles, and "those belonging to felons".
This begs the question, if a felon has already served a sentence, is it right to have his or her vehicle tracked and monitored by the police, or even Parking Services for that matter? Why not go after everyone with a criminal past, i.e. shoplifters, pot smokers, and jaywalkers?
The "mission creep" fear is very real. Once society accepts license plate recognition enforcement, how long before facial recognition is commonplace? What happens to me when I fall out of grace with society - say, I bounce a few checks or get a DUI - and can no longer enter a Starbucks because I am considered a "risk"?
Perhaps, we as Americans will one day to be able to carefully balance our liberty and our security. Do we need cameras in every school cafeteria, every office, every single square inch of public space? The answer is obviously, no. This is Boulder, Colorado, a place where we cherish personal liberties and the right to live one's life as one sees fit, free of constant governmental surveillance. We must not allow this encroachment on our right to privacy to take hold.