Living In Spytown

An interesting lawsuit is proceeding in Coral Gables, Florida.  Coral Gables has installed “license plate readers” at traffic intersections, and one of its citizens, Raul Mas Canosa is suing about the amount of data that the city has accumulated about him — and every other car owner in town.

Coral Gables has more than 30 license plate readers positioned at major intersections in the city.  The readers take a photo of the back of each vehicle and record the license plate number and the associated time, date and location.  Thanks to the license plate readers, the Coral Gables Police Department has captured tens of millions of data points representing individual vehicle movements around the city — more than any of the other 26 South Florida cities that use a similar system.  Privacy advocates say that the license plate readers are intrusive and the accumulated data effectively allows the city to track the daily movements of ordinary citizens who are not suspected of any crime.  The city argues that the system can be used to quickly find vehicles that may be involved in criminal activity and could be used to help solve cold cases, too.

The pending lawsuit argues that the license plate readers violate the Fourth Amendment and rights to privacy under Florida law.  Recently the judge presiding over the case denied Coral Gables’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which means the case will proceed into the discovery phase.  The discovery will likely focus on how the city uses the system, its usefulness in helping to solve crimes and apprehend criminals. and whether there is reasonable justification for keeping the data for years.

Should cities routinely track the movements of people going about their daily affairs through the use of cameras at traffic intersections?  After all, traffic intersections are public places where anyone can see who is driving by, and in most major cities there are likely to be security cameras that record movements past particular buildings.  For many of us, being on camera has become a part of our daily lives.  But the problem here is that the city keeps the data for years and presumably can combine it with other information it maintains — like whose car bears the license plate, and where they live — to get a pretty good picture of what people are doing and where they are going from day to day.  That seems pretty intrusive to me.

Police officials are always going to want more data and information that they can sift through in trying to solve crimes.  The question is one of line-drawing, and balancing effective crime fighting with the privacy rights of normal people.  The Coral Gables case is one that will help to start sketching out the boundaries and setting the balance.

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