The surge in surveillance has been fueled by giant leaps in technology, which has lowered the prices on many devices that local police departments now covet. Other major advances are making it possible for huge federal agencies like the NSA to read every email we write if they wish.
Our coverage was sparked by the Menlo Park Police Department's request to purchase license plate readers and several surveillance video cameras, which would be aimed mostly at law-abiding residents, but would help the police track stolen cars. The readers are a relatively new device that is housed in a small box that can be attached to a police car and photograph the license plates of every vehicle that comes near the cruiser. It then transmits the photograph to a regional system in San Francisco that can compare the plates with those on stolen cars.
Our concern, and that of many residents, is two-fold:
• How long will these records be kept?
• How many other agencies can access the data?
During his tenure in the state Legislature, former state Senator Joe Simitian, who is now a Santa Clara County supervisor, chaired the senate's Select Committee on Privacy. A bill he authored to control some practices in the collection of license plate data was unfortunately withdrawn without a vote last year. But Mr. Simitian has not lost his concern about the widespread use of data-mining techniques to invade the privacy of citizens all over the state. Mr. Simitian told the Almanac that key questions about privacy in the high-tech era are not even being asked.
Local resident Steve Taffee, a member of the Menlo Park Police Department's citizens advisory committee, said he understands why license-plate readers, which automate a tedious manual task, appeal to police departments. But Mr. Taffee's fear is that the collection and retention of "big data" is rarely understood by residents, law enforcement officials, legislators and others.
Before this technology existed, residents were relatively sure that no one was tracking their auto trips or could see what they were wearing downtown on a particular day. But in recent years it has become clear that cell phones with GPS can be used to track a user's whereabouts and also provide a record of where he or she has been over time. In addition, if a vehicle is scanned by a license-plate reader, that record can show exactly where that vehicle has been and can even see if the driver was accompanied by a passenger.
In other words, our expectation of privacy when we engage almost any electronic device has vanished and there is little that we can do about it. It is our hope that local officials will respond to pressure from residents to slow down the police department's move to implement the license-plate readers. We also urge that the city put some restriction on who can access these records.
We respect the police department and trust that its motives are to simply do a better job for the community. But unless we apply some common-sense safeguards to this information-gathering, we can see the day when all our private information will be available to everyone who has the right tools. If you think the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center servers are impregnable one has only to consider the NSA's trust in Edward Snowden. Hacking large databases happens every day. In our view, it is not worth the risk to hold these records for more than 30 days and certainly at the most six months.
In addition, state and local governments need to examine the totality of electronic surveillance in our communities and begin to ask more questions about what is necessary and why. Unless there is reason to believe otherwise, there is no reason for the government to know our whereabouts every waking hour.