One nation, under surveillance…

In Editorial on August 1, 2012 at 1:15 pm

One nation, under surveillance, with liberty permitted to some.

We have become the Mrs. Kravitz nation. You remember Mrs. Kravitz from the 1960s Bewitched television sit-com?

Her window blinds were permanently tented from her persistently raising them in order to watch her neighbors. She just knew her neighbors were “up to something”

In a nation of busybodies, “something” is never a good thing to be up to.

The busybodies are feeding their surveillance fetish with a wonderful “law enforcement tool”, the Automated License Plate Reading System (ALPRS).

ALPRS uses a simple character recognition program coupled to an infrared camera. The camera takes a picture of a license plate, the picture is digitized and the patterns in the digitized alpha numerics of the plate are matched to a database of license plate numbers. The system retains the GPS location where the photo was taken, along with the date and time. ALPRS can scan and retain thousands of license plates in a matter of minutes. ALPRS has mobile capability and can be mounted on police cars as they prowl the streets, highways, and parking lots of America. Stored data and photos can be retained indefinitely, only limited by whatever laws may exist.

Law enforcement administrators say ALPRS helps them snare drivers with expired license plate, scofflaws with outstanding fines or warrants, and even “terrorists”, “known terrorists”, and “suspected terrorists”…along with similarly reviled “gang members”, “known gang members”, and “suspected gang members”.

Are we expected to believe that a police officer, alerted to the expired registration on a car parked at a casino, is going to sit patiently waiting until the owner completes his gambling inside…so the officer can write him a ticket for the expired tags?

Let’s put aside all conjuring of an Orwellian dystopia and look at ALPRS for its misuse potential.

“Law enforcement” is not synonymous with “law abiding”. Even the most complacent among us must admit that there are rogue police officers and rogue agencies. NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims outside of NYPD jurisdiction comes to mind.


In the not too distant past, law enforcement agencies cooperated with politicians (or acted on their own) to compile and maintain “enemies lists”, intimidate dissenters, and catalog the activities of “subversives”, “communists”, and other “undesirables”.

Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, and a plethora of lesser McCarthys have an urgent need to know what people are doing.

Therein, is the most concerning and the most likely abuse of ALPRS.

“I wonder who’s at the Planned Parenthood protest?”

“Hey, doesn’t that plate on the car parked in front of the gay bar belong to that traditional values preaching minister?”

“Let’s see who’s at the gun show over at the fairgrounds!”

“Shawnequa Williams? In this neighborhood? She doesn’t belong here?”

The system suffers from the disability of all technology. It is dumb and can be spoofed.

Ersatz license plates can be easily produced by a photo editing program. Real license plates can be photographed and reproduced into life-size copies…or real plates can be “photoshopped” into real plates.

Simply attach the phony plate to a car of a similar make and model. The process is so common, it already has a name: car cloning.


Since criminals don’t obey laws, why would they shun placing a copy of a law-abiding citizen’s license plate over their own? Why would a power-hungry politician (criminal) refrain from staging his/her opponent’s car in an embarrassing location and then “leak” the sighting (backed by a photo) to an eager press?

Remember, photos make for compelling evidence!

The Bible-thumping preacher finds himself defending against allegations that he frequents gay bars. Photos of license plates belonging to “known” criminals and terrorists are found with regularity at local gun shows. Political foes of all sorts can also be reliably placed at the scenes of crimes.

Ten O’clock News has learned from a law enforcement official, speaking on conditions of anonymity, that a candidate for the US Senate may be frequenting a home, known by police, to be a distribution point for illegal drugs and a hangout for local prostitutes. There IS a photo of the candidate’s car and license plate. Photo experts have determined that the photo has not been altered. And, the encoded GPS location of the photo shows it was taken in front of a house that is under continuous police surveillance because of the ongoing criminal activity there.”

Was the photo altered or faked?

Of course not. Only the subject of the photo was altered…not the photo.

Want to create a day of excitement for someone?

J. Edgar Hoover

Simply recreate a license plate from a recent news story about a murder, drug deal gone bad, or terrorist attack. Now make a reproduction of the plate and affix it over the real plate of someone you don’t like.

A well-intentioned officer, equipped with ALPRS, scans the car and he and his comrades complete a “felony stop” on the innocent victim of your prank.

“We apologize for any inconvenience. Our officers followed proper technique.”

And, they did.

The system is also dependent upon the integrity of its operator. In some states, license plates are a system of letters before numbers. In others, the numbers precede the letters. The system will alert to the presence of characters, without respect to the order they are in. So, an incompetent or malicious officer can create “reasonable suspicion” to stop and search a car with plates “ABC 123” because a “known” criminal is in the database with a plate reading “123 ABC”.


“Okay, there are some problems. But ALPRS is a useful tool for law enforcement.”

There have been many “useful tools” for law enforcement that have been abused. Some of those “useful tools” have been struck down by America’s judicial branch.

Blocking a street with police cars and detaining everyone on the street while officers photograph through windows of homes would be a “useful tool” as well.

“These systems are in use in other countries.”

Yes. Fine. Move to one of them.

“Everybody’s doin’ it, doin’ it” is not a reason to do something.

In some countries, the military patrols the streets. That doesn’t mean America should patrol its streets with the military.

In some countries, one may be held in jail until he confesses. Confession will lessen the severity of the imposed penalty.

In some countries, phones are tapped without judicial oversight.

And, a lot of countries disdain the use of ALPRS.

The Federal Court of Germany, a nation with a culture celebrating obedience and order, held that retaining ALPRS information “not destined for a specific purpose” (i.e. prosecuting traffic or registration violations or tracking terrorists) was a violation of German law.

Compare that German court’s finding to the planned use (lets use the popular “deployment”) of ALPRS in the United States of America, the “freest country on earth”.

It gives one a bit of pause.


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