| There has been plenty of news lately about the incredibly invasive secret surveillance efforts the federal government has been undertaking for the last decade, and rightfully so. That the government knows who you are calling, and when and from where you are calling them, is bad enough. That they are snooping into our emails, Facebook, Skype, etc., is even worse. "They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type," one national intelligence official told the Washington Post.
As disheartened as I am by these revelations, I can't say I am terribly surprised. What shocked me even more to know is that the Dedham Police Department is conducting their own form of surveillance on you, me, and plenty of other people who have broken no laws and have done nothing wrong. The police are keeping records of the date, time, and location of your travels throughout town, and holding onto them indefinitely without a warrant.
|Two years ago the department installed high speed cameras on several cruisers that allow them to automatically read the license plates of cars parked on the street or passing them on the road. I have no problem with this, if this was as far as it went. When you are out on a public street, you have no expectation of privacy. The cameras don't do anything a police officer couldn't do by himself; they just do it a lot more quickly and efficiently.
As the cruiser drives down the street, the computer can automatically run the plates of passing or parked cars to see if the owner has 100 unpaid speeding tickets, if the insurance has expired, if it is stolen, or any other number of things that should take the car off the road. It's an excellent tool in that respect.
The problem comes in that every time a cruiser drives past a car it takes a photo of the plate and makes a note of where and when the photo was taken. The police department holds onto this information forever, and while I wish I could take more of a Rick Blaine style approach to the government creating a dossier on me (Are my eyes really green?), the civil libertarian in me isn't quite so blasé. It brings us one step closer to 1984.
The Dedham Police Department isn't peering directly into our living rooms, of course, but I live on a pretty major road, and I frequently see a cruiser parked in one of several parking lots nearby. It's not all that uncommon to see them parked directly across the street from my driveway. All they need is one of these automatic license plate readers mounted on the car, and they have a record of all my comings and goings.
If one of these cruisers happens to drive by, they can tell you when I visit my grandparents, go to the gym, attend church, and shop at Legacy Place... as well as when I shopped at Amazing, had too many and had to leave my car at the bar all night, or did any number of other things that are perfectly legal but which I still would not want memorialized in a permanent police record. As it is, they have years of data on me - and you, and everyone else who drives through town.
I have little doubt that if this is taken to the Supreme Court, and I hope that it is, that it would be struck down as an unconstitutional infringement on our right to privacy and our liberties more generally. Justice Sotomayor recently lamented in a related case that "physical intrusion is now unnecessary to many forms of surveillance" and that "the Government can store such records and efficiently mine them for information years into the future," which is exactly what our police department is doing.
She then questioned "whether people reasonably expect that their movements will be recorded and aggregated in a manner that enables the Government to ascertain, more or less at will, their political and religious beliefs, sexual habits, and so on," calling it "inimical to democratic society" and "a too permeating police surveillance."
I think I am safe in answering the justice's question in the negative. I don't think most people know that our police department is doing this, and I suspect that most people wouldn't like the idea of it, either. Some have said that if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear. However, as a Boston.com blog pointed out yesterday, "If you think abuse of personal data can't happen, please do an Internet search using the phrases: 'Nixon's enemies list' and 'IRS targets Tea Party.'"
Now I have no reason to believe, and I want to be clear about this, that anyone in our police department is abusing their access to the vast trove of records they have stored in their computers. However, until a few weeks ago I had no reason to believe IRS officials were abusing their authority either. Unfortunately, sometimes it happens.
There is some good news, however. There's a bill on Beacon Hill that would limit what police departments who use these systems can do with it, and how long they can store the data. Our very own Paul McMurtry is a co-sponsor. Here's hoping that it passes, and soon.