Once upon a time, America was free. Now, it’s not so free. And this story out of Coral Gables, Florida, about a man’s court fight to rid his community of a privacy-dinging, constitutionally questionable automated license plate reader program, helps explain why.
In 2018, a man living in Coral Gables named Raul Mas Canosa filed a lawsuit against the city, the state Department of Law Enforcement and the Florida Department of State claiming his constitutional rights were being infringed because of the “thousands of times” local authorities have taken photos of his vehicle over the years, absent any reason, absent any suspicion of wrongdoing and, more importantly, absent any court order or warrant.
Why the photos?
Coral Gables is a community that participates in an automated license plate reader program, whereby drivers are subjected to random, unannounced and ongoing photographing by government officials. Cameras are mounted on traffic lights, on street poles, on police cruisers. Snap, snap, snap — the data on drivers, which includes pictures of the plates, the vehicles, the drivers, the passengers, are all sucked into a software system that’s analyzed and red-flagged for criminal behaviors, outstanding warrants, sought-after suspects. And then it’s shared.
The data’s shared with pretty much any and all requesting government agencies and authorities and, well, who knows who else. Marketing companies? Maybe. Private insurers? Maybe. The FBI? Oh, most definitely.
Caleb Kruckenberg, an attorney with the New Civil Liberties Alliance who’s leading the litigation for Canosa’s case, said in a sit-down interview at The Washington Times for the “Bold and Blunt” podcast that the city’s automated license plate reader, or ALPR, program requires the data to be sent to an outlet in Virginia, called Vigilant Solutions. But from there, it’s anybody guess where it goes.
“We’re in the discovery stage [of the lawsuit] right now,” he said, explaining that they’re still not clear on what information is being gathered from drivers, what it’s being used for, where it’s going, who has access, and so forth.
But he has learned this: “The number of images the city has collected in the last three years — 101 million.” Of what? “You get the car, you get the driver, usually, and there’s meta data associated with the image so it says, this time, this location, going this direction,” Kruckenberg said.
So what’s it all mean?
It means that government authorities in this Florida community — and elsewhere, thanks to the policy of sharing — have at their disposals the means to track citizens’ whereabouts, any time these citizens take to the road.
Police — and certainly, police have a case here — say they need the real-time information because it can help them react to kidnappings, car thefts, child abductions, even terrorism or on-the-run murder suspects.
Safety first, they say.
And indubitably, safety for the citizens is a good thing.
But at what cost? At what price for individual freedoms? At what peril to the Constitution?
A government that can track your movements can tell, for instance, when you go to the doctor’s, and perhaps, what for; when you go to a bar, and how long you stay; when you take a vacation, and where, and perhaps, how long you stay — how long your home is empty. What about a hack attack on all that? There are some would-be and burglars who’d love a whack at that last set of data, no doubt. But think of the road of unintended consequences.
What about the idea of the government knowing you attend an NRA meeting, or an addiction 12-step program?
These are serious questions that just skip around the edges of all the privacy concerns with ALPR programs. There are more, many more. But that doesn’t even get to the heart of the matter with ALPR programs — the one that outright flips the Constitution on its head — the one that goes like this: In America, citizens are innocent until proven guilty.
This isn’t China.
This shouldn’t be Big Brother.
What gives government the right to surveil citizens without cause, without warning, without warrant?
It’s time to set some parameters here and make clear that yes, police have a job to do and yes, citizens have a right to be safe from wandering criminals. But there’s a way security can be upheld in this country without calling for cameras over every citizen’s shoulder — without giving the government the ability to know every citizens’ every move, every minute of every day.
The standard used to be the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. Apparently, that ship has sailed.
But at the least, authorities can now be required to tell citizens where the data is being collected, what’s being collected, who has access, and why. In a country that’s supposedly free, that should be obvious.
In fact, in a country that’s free, we shouldn’t even have to go to court to ask.
• Cheryl Chumley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @ckchumley. Listen to her podcast “Bold and Blunt” by clicking HERE. And never miss her column; subscribe to her newsletter by clicking HERE.