- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 1, 2003

Hah. I knew it would happen. The British government, says the English computer site the Register, is bent on installing a nationwide system of cameras that can read the license plates of passing cars and check them against a list of, well, anyone the government wants to find. Stolen cars are the obvious first target, and have indeed been targeted.

This is different from the revenue cameras in America, which usually take pictures only of cars running red lights. The British cameras will read all passing plates with character-recognition software. They will then check them against a list of wanted people.

It isn’t science fiction, and it works. Says the BBC, in recent experiments with nine police departments, Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) caught 300 stolen cars, as well as all sorts of stolen property, drugs, and whatnot. More than 3,000 drivers have been arrested. The hope is that by 2005 all of the police departments in England and Wales will have the system. The purpose is nothing less than “to deny criminals the use of the roads.”

The technology is no longer cutting edge. The question is what the consequences will be.

On the plus side, such cameras will make life a lot more difficult for car thieves. Today cops run plates only of suspicious cars, because it takes time and attention. With an ANPR system, you would call 911 when you found your car gone and five minutes later it would be on the watch list. With cameras at strategic positions — on ramps and off ramps, bridges, main streets — thieves would be taking a large chance.

The not so appealing aspect appears in this, from the BBC: “Drivers going on the roads without paying tax or insurance will also be targeted by the move, which the Home Office says follows a successful six-month trial.”

Catching car thieves is a good idea. Catching uninsured motorists? Your plates expired three days ago and you haven’t gotten to the DMV? Well, that is a violation, and shouldn’t we catch violators?

How about speeding?

Here’s the problem. We’re all against car theft, but we aren’t nearly so much against speeding. Most of us bend or break a lot of laws, responsibly. “Oh, gosh, forgot the inspection sticker. I’ll do it Monday. They won’t catch me.”

Justification for surveillance can always be found. Drunken driving is obviously not a good thing. Keeping track of cars whose plates showed up regularly outside the after-work beer joint would get support from antidrinking groups. Are you a white guy from the suburbs and your plates show up often in a black part of the District where drug markets operate? You’re probably buying. This is a common form of racial profiling I often saw when I was a police reporter.

Legally, the argument usually is that a policeman has a perfect right to read your license plate from his patrol car. Why not with a camera? There is no expectation of privacy with license plates. What this doesn’t take into account is that sufficient change in efficiency makes the ordinary into something very different.

Further, license-plate recognition has enormous potential as a revenue generator. If automated ticketing can be enforced, many jurisdictions would love it.

The system could easily keep a record of everywhere your license showed up. It seems to me that all of this should be carefully thought about before adopting a very powerful technology.

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