Today's New York Times features an embarrassingly misleading article on how Automatic License Plate-Readers (ALPRs) are supposedly reducing crime in NYC.

Offering only general statistics and sensational anecdotes, NYPD spokesman Paul Browne credits ALPRs for a 75% reduction in car thefts since 2005 and a 31% increase in arrests for grand larceny auto.  However, it's not explained how exactly the cameras are responsible for this reduction.  Sure, the numbers have dropped over the six year period cited by Browne, but the numbers have been steadily dropping for over a decade.

For good measure, the article gives the cameras ample credit for helping police apprehend a wanted murderer and serial bank robber.

So why don't we install ALPR's across the country and watch crime shrink in double digit percentages?  Surveillance doesn't reduce criminal activity.  If it did, surely England (whose citizens are the most surveilled in the world) would have a lower crime rate than the United States.

Let's not be misled. 

As NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman says, "We don’t know how much information is being recorded and kept, for how long, and by which cameras.  It’s one thing to have information about cars that are stopped for suspicious activity, but it’s something else to basically maintain a permanent database of where particular cars go when there is nothing happening that is wrong and there is no basis for suspicion."

History also tells us we can't count on law enforcement to purge personal information of those doing nothing wrong.

Here are some important facts to remember about any discussion of ALPR's:

ALPRs Undermine Our Fourth Amendment Right to Privacy:

  • Automatic License Plate-Readers scan and store the license plates of any car that an equipped police cruiser encounters—on the highway, in a parking lot, in a neighborhood.  The scanner then checks the plate against databases, watch-lists and the identity and location of the scan is stored in a police database
  • When people are under surveillance, they behave differently.  This has been a principle of prison architecture for centuries, but Maine is not a prison, and Maine’s free citizens are not prisoners.
ALPR Databases Are Susceptible To Abuse:
  • Once installed, surveillance systems are rarely confined to their original purpose or fully secure from outside breach.
  • ALPR databases contain a virtual map of an individual’s movements—who they visit, which doctors they see, what meetings they attend.  One company that sells ALPRs promotes the potential for data-mining as a selling point.
  • Whether it is the police officer in Washington, D.C. who in 1997 used police databases to gather information on patrons of a gay club (in hopes of blackmailing them) or the Michigan officers who used law-enforcement databases to stalk women and track estranged spouses, expanding police databases through surveillance invites abuse.