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Friday, July 28, 2006

"The subway has never looked so appealing."

"The subway has never looked so appealing," writes Luke O'Brien in his recent article, "License Plate Tracking for All." O'Brien is writing about something I've written about before: license plate readers. But, whereas my research on the subject has focused on police deployment, O'Brien has also researched the private applications of the technology. He prognosticates a dystopian world in which the tracking technology, having spread ubiquitously beyond just police departments, logs every move we make and every destination we reach - and all points in between.
In recent years, police around the country have started to use powerful infrared cameras to read plates and catch carjackers and ticket scofflaws. But the technology will soon migrate into the private sector, and morph into a tool for tracking individual motorists' movements, says former policeman Andy Bucholz, who's on the board of Virginia-based G2 Tactics, a manufacturer of the technology.

Bucholz, who designed some of the first mobile license plate reading, or LPR, equipment, gave a presentation at the 2006 National Institute of Justice conference here last week laying out a vision of the future in which LPR does everything from helping insurance companies find missing cars to letting retail chains chart customer migrations. It could also let a nosy citizen with enough cash find out if the mayor is having an affair, he says.

Giant data-tracking firms such as ChoicePoint, Accurint and Acxiom already collect detailed personal and financial information on millions of Americans. Once they discover how lucrative it is to know where a person goes between the supermarket, for example, and the strip club, the LPR industry could explode, says Bucholz.

Private detectives would want the information. So would repo men or bail bondsmen. And the government, which often contracts out personal data collection -- in part, so it doesn't have to deal with Freedom of Information Act requests -- might encourage it.

"I know it sounds really Big Brother," Bucholz says. "But it's going to happen. It's going to get cheaper and cheaper until they slap them up on every taxicab and delivery truck and track where people live." And work. And sleep. And move.
Yes, it does sound very Big Brother. Notice the inevitability with which the designer of the technology treats its implementation, as if he were merely the humble vessel for this natural progression. In many ways he is right - high tech has its own logic, and one tech does tend to presume and predict the next. But Bucholz seems to be engaging in something more - something like a self-absolution for his specific role in bringing this potential monstrosity into our lives. But this really isn't anything new - scientists have generally treated their scientific philosophy as a political shield against any criticism of the applications of their research. Pure science is, well, pure, we are told, and scientists are not to blame.

So, these plate readers, "around the size of a can of tomato sauce, can be mounted on police cruisers and powered by cigarette lighters." They can read far more license plates in an hour than an officer can possibly encounter, and they can be linked to various insurance, law enforcement and - as Bucholz hopes - commercial databases, providing a wealth of data and increased policing power to capitalists, cops and bureaucrats alike. But don't blame the scientists.

According to O'Brien:
The next step is connecting the technology to databases that will tell cops whether a sexual offender has failed to register in the state or is loitering too close to a school, or whether a driver has an outstanding warrant. It could also snag you if you're uninsured, if your license expired last week or even if your library books are overdue.
The last claim may seem ridiculous, but consider that the city of Arlington, VA, has already experimented with expanding its own plate reader database to include unpaid taxes and, yes, library fines.

And this tech is indeed on the verge of exploding. While the private network may be a bit further off, a brief perusal of news.google.com reveals several articles just in the past few days about police departments installing plate readers. For example, John Doherty reports for the Times-Herald Record on police adoption in Newburgh.
Within days, Newburgh city police will have one of the first automated license plate scanners in the area.

The scanner - like a hyper-fast cop typing in all the license plates he passes - promises to catch scofflaws and drivers with lapsed insurance or registrations.

"One of the guys who trained us on it said, 'It's almost not fair to criminals'," said Chief Eric Paolilli.
And, while fund-raising via tickets and fines - always a priority for cities and police departments - certainly benefits from the efficient technology, local authorities nevertheless do anticipate expanding their ability to wage a broader class war on the poor and working class as a result. For example, Newburgh's system was donated to the town under a state grant program intended "as part of Operation Impact, the fledgling program to up law enforcement in high-crime communities." In Indianapolis, Wal-Mart contributed $4000 towards the purchase of a plate reader for the local police.

According to the Times-Herald article, "Police plan to load the laptop with information on parolees and probationers, and then cruise areas where those offenders are not supposed to be."

Will the Green Scare list be uploaded, too? What about the No-Fly List?

One interesting phenomenon this technology seems to have revealed to the police is just how common law-breaking is in this country. According to Nik Bonopartis' piece in the Poughkeepsie Journal on Monday, July 24th, ("Devices help nab violators"):
Early test runs through the Poughkeepsie area have turned up a surprising number of hits on the system, police officials say.

It's a time-saving tool, but it also may give police a better idea of how many drivers are behind the wheel with bad registrations, invalid licenses, fake plates and other infractions.

"This just shows how big that number is, because that's most of your hits," city Chief Ronald Knapp said. "And as you're driving down the street, that's what's coming up."
Taking this week's award for stating the obvious, Knapp continued, "It's just incredible the way the technology is going." Poughkeepsie's two plate readers were paid for by Operation Impact, New York's technophiliac "comprehensive crime fighting program designed to achieve sustained, long term crime reduction across the state." That's code for arresting more poor people which, incidentally, expands the database and triggers more arrests in a dangerous cycle of data collection and policing.

"Who knows -- (it) could be the next iPod," said Officer Todd Burris when the Indianapolis Star asked him about the future spread of the technology.

Of course, anarchists wouldn't surprised that so many people so regularly break the law, with many of the infractions deriving simply from the eternal problem of living a common sense life in a highly rule-oriented society that doesn't tend to offer many exceptions to the poor and working classes (the rich, however, are another story). However, it does beg the question of just what such technology will do to the world view and underlying logic of police officers once nearly everyone becomes transformed in their eyes into lawbreakers? Certainly the project of policing a society with both widespread, accurate surveillance and such widespread subversion of the law does suggest a high degree of ambition and indeed, confidence, on the part of law enforcement, law-makers and bureaucrats.

Another question: is such a contradiction tenable for long? Which will give first - the enforcement or the lawbreaking? Perhaps the missing link is the officer herself, who will probably do as she always has and simply disregard the vast majority of crimes in order to focus on policing the poor, people of color and political dissenters. But, as policing technology increasingly becomes both automated and ubiquitous, this traditional human element may play less and less of a role. Can a society exist that enforces every law? If even only against the poor? This remains to be seen.

On a positive note, however, such a society would destroy once and for all the myth that free markets have anything to do with any other kind of freedom, as the techno-capitalist system, finally omniscient and omnipresent, watches, counts and tracks everyone and everything in a way that the communists and fascists only dreamed about. That is, unless, such a system undermines itself, self-destructing under the weight of its own contradictions, finally opening the way for anarchy. One can hope.


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