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In a Town This Size

July 19, 2013

You can’t steal a kiss in a place like this
– John Prine, from In a Town This Size

In the Supreme Court case, United States v. Jones, the justices all agreed that the government was overreaching in its use of a GPS tracker on a citizen’s car, because this constituted a search as per the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.  In the case, law enforcement had installed a GPS device on a suspect’s car on the eleventh day after it had received a warrant to do so, one day after that warrant’s expiration date. The GPS device was kept on the car for 28 days.  Four of the justices argued with an opinion written by Justice Anthony Alioto, that the ongoing monitoring of a citizen for 28 days should be considered a search, since it conflicts with a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” Five of the justices emphasized in their majority and concurring Bill_of_Rights_Pg1of1_ACopinion that any interpretation of the Fourth Amendment today must at a minimum, ensure citizens the same level of protection as in 1791, when it was written, and that since attaching a GPS device to a citizen’s car was trespassing, there wasn’t any reason to go any further with the legal analysis.

Those concerned about the encroachment on our privacy in the modern age were heartened by the ultimate consensus outcome that day, even though the justices arrived there with two different analyses. The SCOTUS clearly considered the general ease with which large amountsAwareness that the Government may be watching chills associational and expressive freedoms.  of personal data can be gathered and retained today as it analyzed the case. Justice Sonya Sotomeyer, who issued her own consenting opinion in addition to signing Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion, wrote

“And the Government’s unrestrained power to assemble data that reveal private aspects of identity is susceptible to abuse. The net result is that GPS monitoring – by making at a relatively low cost such a substantial quantum of intimate information about any person whom the Government, in its unfettered discretion, chooses to track – may alter the relationship between citizen and government that is inimical to democratic society.”

Well said, your honor.

Now let’s consider another application of technology. Over the past few years, most of us in urban or suburban areas have probably seen the cameras perched near traffic lights that are used to identify violations.  By now, these devices have proliferated into our small towns and rural areas also. Some of us may not have paid much attention and only learned about them when an official-looking envelope arrived at the mail box with a traffic violation and an accompanying photo of our auto’s license plate as Exhibit A. 

license plates 2This technology is now been applied to tracking license plates as a matter of course. All across the country, drivers’ license plates are being filmed for no particular purpose but to have the data should it become helpful to an investigation into a crime. This means of course that whether you are a suspect to a crime or not, your car ride is being filmed. It does not matter the purpose of your trip or who you are, you are being filmed.  Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak found out about this when his whereabouts were made public in August of last year, thanks to his city’s use of the technology.

The ACLU released a report two days ago based on its review of public records from 293 police departments and state agencies from across the nation about their use of automatic license plate readers. The report shows that all across the country, the technology is being used to capture photos of us driving and then logging the dates, GPS locations and our license plate numbers.

The use of the readers varies. Here in the Bay Area for example, drivers sign the guest book each time they enter and leave the lovely town of Tiburon, as their license plates are recorded by the cameras positioned on the roads near the town’s limits. The Milpitas Police Department mounts their cameras to six of their patrol cars.  Similarly, so does the town of Pittsburg, which uses its readers “… in conjunction with any routine patrol operation or criminal investigation. Reasonable suspicion or probable cause is not required before using an ALPR.”

The ACLU's report can be found on their website,

The ACLU’s report can be found on their website,

Data retention practices are left up to the agencies and jurisdictions.  Some, such as the Minnesota State Patrol, delete data after 48 hours. Jersey City, NJ, a city of quarter million people, stores the data it collects for five years before it is purged. Milpitas, which had collected 4.7 million license plate records as of about a year ago, as well as other law enforcement agencies across the country, do not have a data retention policy.

The ACLU acknowledges that these license plate trackers can and do play an important and valid role in law enforcement. However, they highlight the concern about the privacy issues involved and how any practice with such a widespread net could lead to many abuses and unintended consequences. 

Our movements are not only tracked by the government of course, but by private companies as well.  Shopping centers, parking lots, gated communities and other places we frequent use the technology. The vendors who service these places have a vast amount of data. One such company claims to have 700 million data points on where American drivers activity. The ACLU calls for rules and regulations about how this data is used and how long it can be kept. 

Perhaps the most chilling thoughts are not about the state of such things now, but where this may lead. In a 2011 survey of police departments, almost 75% of the respondents reported that they use license plate readers and 85% said that they planned to increase their use of the technology through 2016. In today’s quick-paced world and with the increased use of amazing technology, one not need a very vivid imagination to see how this data could easily be merged into even larger databases and made accessible with laser sharp data-mining tools. One day soon, it will be quite feasible to compile the details for everywhere that we have driven. I’m not in favor.

“A person who knows all of another’s travels can deduce whether he is a weekly churchgoer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.”

– District of Columbia Court in its ruling in U.S. v. Jones that preceded the SCOTUS trial

Is that the environment we intend build and foster with the license plate readers?  Justice Alioto and the others on the SCOTUS, as well as Congress, will have more opportunities to apply the Fourth Amendment’s “reasonable expectation of privacy” test.

“In a town this size, there’s no place to hide
Everywhere you go you meet someone you know
You can’t steal a kiss in a place like this
How the rumors fly in a town this size
In a smokey bar in the backseat of your car
In your little house someone’s sure to find out
What you do and what you think
What you eat and what you drink
If you smoke a cigarette they’ll be talking’ about your breath”

– John Prine, from In a Town This Size

From → Technology

  1. Bernie permalink

    Bruce, I must confess that I did not fully appreciate the depth to which you are committed to “citizenship” and high functioning positive community behavior. It makes me wonder why I didn’t listen more and talk less during those valuable hours we spent together walking in Livermore…. B


  2. Those were great walks and sometimes, the best part of the day.


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