After Edward Snowden revealed that American phone records were under federal surveillance, the former Homeland Security chief explained to news stations the need for such a program thusly: Searching for terrorists is like finding a needle in a haystack. Phone records are haystacks. No haystack, no needle.
Turns out, we’re nothing but haystacks to the government. A couple of stories from IdahoReporter.com in recent days illustrate the point. Police departments in Idaho, having received federal grants to do so, have been systematically recording license plate information of passing vehicles—vehicles of people presumably innocent of any crime.
Coeur d’Alene, Post Falls and Idaho Falls all use technology that reads license plates of passing cars and stores the record in a database. The Idaho State Police and the Boise Police Department don’t have the license plate scanning tech, but according to reports, they and other law agencies have access to the license plate database on a “back-office server” and can access it to see where our vehicles are going.
“The Kootenai County (license plate reader) project has been a huge success,” exclaimed Post Falls Chief of Police Scot Haug in an article on LawOfficer.com. “Currently, there are more than 7 million reads stored on the back-office server, and approximately 35,000 plates per day are read by the system. As a result of this project, we've recovered dozens of stolen vehicles, and the back-office server is available to all agencies in the area.”
Asked by IdahoReporter.com whether the technology poses a privacy concern, Haug said the answer is yes. But, he added, “Certainly this type of technology can pose a risk to private citizens if it is not guided by proper policy and managed by the right personnel. I’d ask people to have faith in their policymakers and in their law enforcement personnel.”
Forgive me if I don’t share the faith. Technology is always abused. I recall cases going back years in which some overzealous or overly curious law enforcement personnel used confidential national crime database to snoop on friends, spouses and politicians. A July 8 article from the Washington Post details a series of newer cases in which officers inappropriately accessed the database for a variety of alarming non-law enforcement related reasons, including to harass ex-girlfriends or boyfriends and even to commit crimes on unsuspecting innocent people.
Law enforcement will always contend that it does what it does to “save lives.” No doubt that is the motive. I like to say that repealing the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, the one that protects against warrantless searches, would likely save lives. But I don’t want to live in a country where law enforcement can come traipsing into my house whenever it pleases, even in the name of national or local security.
Back in 2001, then-Congressman Butch Otter gained national fame by voting against the Patriot Act, the post-Sept. 11 legislation that is directly responsible for the debate taking place today over whether the federal government should be collecting phone records.
Interestingly, now-Gov. Otter has been stone-cold silent when it comes to the data being collected on Idahoans by Idahoans. I’m hoping that’s just because of the newness of this revelation.
I’d like to think that Idahoans can drive around their state without being treated as just another dataset, another haystack, a target for monitoring and plundering, by their government.