During the news conference following the arrest of four men in connection with the murder of Marley Lion, Solicitor Scarlett Wilson brought up the importance of the video footage obtained from the parking lot where the crime occurred. She also stated her desire to see local legislation aimed at increasing the amount of surveillance available to law enforcement agencies.
This comes on the heels of a recent announcement by the American Civil Liberties Union that they are seeking to find out more about one of the lesser-known methods of surveillance already in use across the nation: automatic license plate recognition.
Unlike traffic cameras, these devices scan and record the license plate of any car in range of the camera. This data cross-references a database that can inform the police almost immediately if they are in the vicinity of a stolen car, an Amber Alert vehicle, or an automobile owned by a person with outstanding warrants.
On the face of it, this seems like a rather beneficial use of technology. That is until you consider that there do not seem to be any clear guidelines on how long these pictures remain in the database and the fact that these cameras do not simply capture pictures of cars belonging to criminals. They capture everyone’s vehicle, every time you are near the camera. In a worst-case scenario, this means the police can present an accurate picture of you, of where you shop, whom you meet for lunch, and where you might be going to conduct your business — legal or otherwise.
ALPR technology has been in use in the Lowcountry for several years now. In fact, the S.C. ACLU joined with the national office in presenting the Mt. Pleasant Police Department and SLED with FOIA requests in an effort to find out how long this data is being kept and what purposes it is being used for, particularly those uses that fall outside of actively pursuing criminals.
We might soon need to add to that the very real possibility that cameras will be watching us enter and leave shopping centers, churches, sporting events, and any other public area where a camera finds itself attached to a light pole. Naturally, supporters of this type of surveillance will remind us “if we are not doing anything wrong, we have nothing to fear.” But that argument hinges upon the blind faith that there are no vindictive or corrupt people at the other end of the camera’s eye waiting to use whatever information they can find on us, either for their own benefit or our detriment.
In the end, these measures are stopgaps aimed at “reducing” crime or, far more accurately, at expediting the process of arresting criminals in order to feed an overburdened court system and an increasingly for-profit prison system. And while they may increase the feeling of security for law-abiding citizens, it does not reduce the chances that the information gathered might come back to haunt us.
In an age where most of us freely exchange the personal details of our lives for the privilege of using Facebook, letting people know what we like, where we shop, who our friends are, and what beliefs we hold, it might seem counterintuitive to question the government’s desire to establish a similar system aimed, if not accurately, at reducing crime. Nevertheless, we must be willing to question the government’s intentions if we are going to allow ourselves the luxury of remaining a “free” nation. Relying solely on current Constitutional protections may not be enough. After all, the Founding Fathers — men who limited the state’s ability to search and seize its citizens and their property — never envisioned a world in which American citizens would be subject to near-constant surveillance.