We were appalled to learn earlier this year that the National Security Agency has been monitoring the phone calls of millions of innocent Americans for years, all in the name of fighting terrorism.
We're not against fighting terrorism, of course, but this broad dragnet and its potential for abuse by government agencies make this practice quite alarming. Scarier still is the fact that the phone scandal is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other ways we are being monitored and tracked throughout our daily lives, and with the ever-expanding development and use of new technologies things are only going to get worse.
A little noticed surveillance technology, designed to track the movements of every passing driver, is fast proliferating on America's streets. Automatic license plate readers, mounted on police cars or on objects like road signs and bridges, use small, high-speed cameras to photograph thousands of plates per minute. The information captured by the readers -- including the license plate numbers, and the date, time and location of every scan -- is being collected and sometimes loaded into regional sharing systems.
As a result, enormous databases of innocent motorists' location information are growing rapidly. This information is often retained for years or even indefinitely, with few or no restrictions to protect privacy rights.
As the American Civil Liberties Union noted, "License plate readers can serve a legitimate law enforcement purpose when they alert police to the location of a car associated with a criminal investigation. But such instances account for a tiny fraction of license plate scans, and too many police departments are storing millions of records about innocent drivers. Moreover, private companies are also using license plate readers and sharing the information they collect with police with little or no oversight or privacy protections. A lack of regulation means that policies governing how long our location data is kept vary widely."
As if that invasion of privacy isn't bad enough, the latest thing to come down the surveillance pipeline would be installed directly into your car, so you don't need to be passing by one of those license plate readers for government agencies to monitor your comings and goings.
We're referring to event data recorders, more commonly known as the black box. Long used by car companies to assess the performance of their vehicles, the boxes are now being used by law enforcement agencies and insurance companies to investigate crashes. That in itself is valid and seems innocuous enough as it is only used to determine the cause of specific accidents.
However, there is now talk of using these black boxes to measure and report the miles you travel, and with GPS technology even the locations you travel to, so as to levy a mileage-based tax on the vehicle's owner.
The idea is to find a replacement for the tax on gasoline, which faces a growing shortfall for the country's Highway Trust Fund because people are driving more fuel-efficient cars that use less gas. This appeals to urban liberals, as the taxes could be rigged to change driving patterns in ways that could help reduce congestion and greenhouse gases, the L.A. Times noted in a recent report.
However, when a trial program got under way in Nevada, the ACLU of that state warned on its website: "It would be fairly easy to turn these devices into full-fledged tracking devices. There is no need to build an enormous, unwieldy technological infrastructure that will inevitably be expanded to keep records of individuals' everyday comings and goings."
In an opinion piece earlier this week, the L.A. Times highlighted two main problems with using black boxes to impose a mileage-based tax. The first is that "the public is acutely sensitive these days to government data collection, thanks to the trust-destroying revelations about the National Security Agency's prodigious surveillance activities."
Second, "The whole user-based approach to highway funding ignores the broad public interest in having a great system of roads and bridges. The economy depends on the efficient movement of goods from producers to consumers. Even if you never spend a minute behind the wheel of a car, you still rely on trucks to deliver food to your grocer, packages to your door, cash to and from retailers, and so on."
For its part, the ACLU says enough is enough. "We now have technologies that enable the creation of very detailed data on our activities. Those technologies are only going to get more powerful and more pervasive. We need to make a choice as a society about the extent to which we want to allow the government to store up that data so that it has the power to hit 'rewind' on everybody's lives. In our view, that's just too much power."
We agree. This proliferation of tracking our every move is enough to make the framers of the constitution turn over in their graves, and Orwellian conspiracy theorists shout from the rooftops, "Told you so!"
What's next, government using drones to spy on us from the skies over our neighborhoods? Oh, wait ...