- The Washington Times - Friday, August 6, 2010

With great fanfare, Gov. Martin O'Malley on Wednesday announced his use of your tax dollars to track every move made by Maryland motorists. The Democratic chief executive will spend $2 million in federal grants to double the number of roadside and mobile spy cameras, with the data centrally collected at a “fusion center” accessible to government bureaucrats.

Like speed cameras and red-light cameras, Mr. O'Malley’s license-plate recognition cameras photograph the plates of passing motorists. Within a matter of seconds, a computer system looks up the vehicle owner’s identity and cross-references it against a “wanted” list after recording the time, date and GPS coordinates of the vehicle. All of this information will be stored at the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center located in Woodlawn, just outside Baltimore. Mr. O'Malley’s plan is unique insofar as it allows tracking of persons of interest using cameras located in dozens of local jurisdictions. “We believe it’s the first,” Maryland State Police spokesman Gregory M. Shipley told The Washington Times. “It’s certainly one of the first to network police [agencies] together like this.”

In theory, the cameras could serve as an important crime-fighting tool. Mr. Shipley explained that the system could identify stolen cars, missing persons, wanted fugitives, violent gang members and terrorist suspects. Unfortunately, we know from the British experience that the system inevitably will expand to become a revenue-generating tool that tracks everyone. The previous Labor government advanced a plan that would have a camera watching every road in the country with travel records centrally stored for at least seven years. The purported crimes most often targeted by Britain’s electronic Big Brother included use of a cell phone behind the wheel and failure to wear a seat belt - hardly the serious stuff claimed in justification of Mr. O'Malley’s plan.

This high-tech shakedown hasn’t come cheaply. For years, the federal government has been doling out millions in grants - including stimulus funding - for the purchase of license-plate recognition technology, yet there has been no public debate on whether this is a good idea. Former Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich, a fierce opponent of speed-camera use, thinks that debate needs to happen. “Bob Ehrlich would need to see compelling arguments that these ‘readers’ have real benefit to remove concerns about government surveillance,” Mr. Ehrlich’s spokesman, Andy Barth, told The Washington Times.

Mr. O'Malley is locked in a statistical dead heat with Mr. Ehrlich, who wants his old job back. That leaves Maryland voters with a clear choice in November between living in a digital shakedown surveillance state and returning to The Free State.