First we learned that thousands of unmanned drone aircraft will soon be in use over our skies and now we learn that our whereabouts can be tracked, without our knowledge, via an increasing use of cameras mounted on police cars that scan license plates and store the data on massive computer files.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) predicted that more than 7,500 civilian drones will be in use within five years after the agency grants them greater access to US skies. Congress has directed the FAA to provide the unmanned aircraft to widespread access to domestic airspace by 2015.
As an experiment, the FAA has already granted access to more than 200 permits to state and local governments, police departments, universities and others to use them. Most of the civilian drones are about the size of a backpack and weigh less than 60 pounds. The military uses unarmed, hand-launched models, some weighing less than 3 pounds, that can fly no higher than most birds. They also use larger models that have a 68-foot wingspan and weight up to 11,000 pounds.
Many of our current privacy protections from aerial surveillance are based on court decisions made back in the 1980’s. The difference between the planes and helicopters of yore and the drones of today is that the unmanned craft can be flown more cheaply, for longer periods of time, and with less risk to human life.
Both scenarios make it likely that surveillance and information-gathering will become much more widespread. The surveillance could be great for law enforcement, news agencies and other related reasons but the privacy concerns must be addressed first. Those concerns need to be address by government officials before manufacturers dump too much money into the design of their wares.
Failing to do so now will only encourage manufacturers to heap pressure, possibly in the form of campaign dollars, on officials to avoid losing monies already invested.
License plate tracking is also causing alarm among many citizens as they learn that their whereabouts at any particular time can be captured and stored in databases for years.
The license plate reader can be a helpful tool for law enforcement when looking for stolen vehicles or drivers with outstanding warrants. But most agencies have no intention of ever purging the data from the database, even that which is collected on innocent citizens. Some officials were quoted recently as saying that the law enforcement benefits outweigh any concerns about possible abuse of the information. That’s a pretty intense statement, but one can understand the quickness to defend the integrity of law enforcement officials who will have access to the data. But take a look beyond the thin blue line to find the real potential for an invasion of privacy.
There is the worry about potential use of the information outside of law enforcement. Every day we read about computer breaches and errors that can release reams of information to those who shouldn’t have it. Anything from snooping by stalkers, theft by businesses that sell personal data, data mining companies and other nefarious bugs trying to get a look at your personal life.
Lawmakers in some states have suggested setting a time limit for keeping the data. Meanwhile the archive of license plate photos, time stamps and locations continues to grow while awaiting a decision and technology and computer hacking marches on.
The privacy concerns of Americans must be addressed before either of these stealth information gathering and storing technologies give “Big Brother” too much of an eyeful into the personal lives of innocent people or the data it stores becomes the next million-dollar heist.