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.

Body Shaming And Social Shaming

Earlier this year Playboy model Dani Mathers got into trouble.  She took a photo of a naked woman in the locker room at her gym and posted it on Snapchat with a snide and mocking comment about the woman’s appearance.

dann_2The reaction to Mathers’ Snapchat was immediate and overwhelming.  She got kicked out of LA Fitness for life for violating a firm policy against photography in locker rooms, and the gym also reported her to police.  She lost a long-standing radio gig.  And Mathers faced withering criticism on social media for “body shaming” an unsuspecting older woman who was just at the gym for an innocent workout.  Mathers apologized, saying that she knew that body shaming was wrong and that the ill-advised posting of the photo was not an indication of the kind of person she was.  And there the story seemed to end.

But now there are reports that the woman Mathers photographed, who previously had not been identified, has come forward and spoken to police to indicate that she would be willing to testify against Mathers, and the LA city attorney’s office is reviewing the case.  Should Mathers be prosecuted for violating the woman’s privacy?  Under California law, taking a photo of someone in a private setting in which they have a reasonable expectation of privacy is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail.

It’s not an easy question, because Mathers’ Snapchat gibe stirs up some strong emotions. It was a callous display of precisely the kind of airheaded contemptuousness and sense of superiority that normal people associate with the brainless “beautiful people.”  Mathers has all day to work out and stay fit; she makes her living solely on the basis of her appearance.  Most of us don’t have that luxury.  We have to work, and we don’t have personal trainers and dietitians and assistants to help us keep the weight off.  And when we do get to the gym, we shouldn’t have to put up with mean-spirited mockery from the hard body brigade.  On the other hand, though, should hardworking prosecutors be spending time on privacy issues rather than prosecuting more serious crimes?

In this case, I would leave it up to the woman whose privacy was so appallingly violated.  The California law was written to protect her rights, and if she wants to bring charges I think the prosecutor should follow her lead.  She may well decide to be kind — kinder, certainly, than Mathers was in sending her Snapchat in the first place — and accept Mathers’ apology.  In either case, Mathers should be the one who is ashamed.  And we should give some thought to who people like Mathers really are the next time we see some pretty face endorsing a product or a politician.