Friday, November 29, 2013

License Plate Privacy Act?

There is a bill before the Massachusetts state legislature to prevent the state government from using license plate scanning technology to collect and share license plate information: which cars were where when. The Boston Globe has a perfectly reasonable op-ed arguing in favor of the bill.
The NSA scandals show what happens when we give vast powers to government agencies to spy in the dark: mission creep and the potential for serious abuses of power. We hope that police, who themselves object to being tracked as they go about their workdays, will join with the ACLU to call for sensible legislation to regulate the use of license plate readers and the collection, retention, and data-mining of our sensitive location information.
But there is an important difference from the NSA data. The micro data is inarguably public. Lots of people see lots of cars on the street every day and could notice the license plate numbers if there was any reason to do so.

I wonder, therefore, about citizens' ability to collect this information for themselves. People can buy license plate reading cameras and set them up on the side of their houses or on their front lawns.  They can organize themselves to crowdsource to create a national database. Maybe the Boy Scouts can give a merit badge to scouts who tie a hundred plate numbers of cars parked in neighborhood driveways to their owners' names.

Can this be outlawed too? If not, do we really want to keep out of police hands a database that the public could assemble for itself? If this kind of data aggregation can be outlawed, how would it be done? Would there be some quantitative threshold, so private citizens could retain small amounts of data but would need a license to collect a lot? What if the database is distributed so nobody has possession of the whole database, but it is possible to query it?

In other words, are there certain kinds of information that will in the future have to be treated the way we now treat nitrogen fertilizer – OK to buy, sell, and possess in small quantities, but subject to heavy regulation when handled in bulk?


  1. It's treading close to the "if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns" perspective of 2nd-ammendment maximalists, but I do think that surveillance is getting so easy that outlawing it will simply ensure that it can *only* be put to nefarious ends. Instead we should make the best of it and see what good it can do. I recommend David Brin's novel "Kiln People" and his essays on "The Transparent Society" as thoughtful explorations of this topic.

  2. Reigning in BIg Brother is ``easy'' in that there are already regulations on what government can do and some protections. I put easy in quotes since its not really that easy, but we already have SOME structure in place.

    Regulations for Little Brother (a phrase I first saw in that jawesome book BLOWN TO BITS) will be very hard since it may be entirely new field..
    Citizens WILL do things like you suggest. To look at a very minor example of the privatization of technology and the ability to skirt laws and traditions, many Amish now use Cell Phones-- the elders can't regulate it.
    More important example- 3d printers to make guns. But in both cases its not clear how laws can work here or even if we should try.

  3. Is it OK for insurance companies to price insurance based on the genetic code of you and your family?

    Free-market purists say yes!

    Is it OK for for you to sequence-and-analyze the genetic code of your neighbors? Your professional colleagues? Your graduate students? The person you just started dating?

    Information-must-be-free purists say yes!

    And if the above are OK individually, then is it OK for individuals to sell the genetic information, that they have enterprisingly collected, to insurance companies?

    Folks who just plain like to make money say yes!

    Conclusion  Pure freedom is looking less-and-less pure, in our brave new 21st century.

    1. Well, I take your general point. My problem is not with extreme information-libertarianism, but with worries about the First Amendment. I don't want the government telling me which of my observations I can publish to the web–how far would that government authority extend? But some such limitations seem to be inevitable if we are to prevent the crowdsourced assembly of a national license plate database.

      As to your particular scenarios, however, I am not sure that libertarians flatly oppose insurance pools, or regulation on how they are assembled.

    2. LOL … "Libertarian Insurance Pool" is the name of my new band!

      Seriously, has *any* libertarian pundit *ever* published a nuts-and-bolts analysis of healthcare economics, that was informed comparably by abstract philosophy and real-world experience?

      If not, then does libertarianism amount to anything more than an excuse to dodge tough issues?

  4. A couple of interesting things I found on the topic were: "The dangers of Surveillance: Harvard Law point counterpoint, in the Daily Kos, and ""Surveillance Camera Man" Draws Ire, Provokes Questions About Recording In Public," in the Berkman Center's Internet Monitor. I had never heard of Virtual Alabama, an extreme example of what can happen when the power of government and corporate big money is dedicated to agglomerating every possible source of data about citizens and their environs. It seems to me there's a categorical difference between what even crowdsourced surveillance could or would accomplish, and the potentially ubiquitous, systematic, wholesale gathering of information of which tax-funded programs with businesses collaboration are capable. Further, crowdsourcing is public, whereas the inclination of most domestic intelligence programs is for there to be as little publicity as possible.

    You may have read about the controversy concerning activation of surveillance cameras by the City of Cambridge. Here at Harvard, a couple of students wrote a "Study of CCTV at Harvard" back in 2007, wherein it was mentioned that cameras were already in place all over the university (other than that, they didn't actually learn much about specifics). Apparently a new IT director for Campus Services has recently been hired, who will be overseeing such matters.

  5. I forgot that I had meant to include the below paragraph - from the Harvard Law Review's "The Dangers of Total Surveillance" - in the previous posting:
    Fusion centers cast a wide and indiscriminate net. Data-mining tools analyze a broad array of personal data culled from public- and private-sector databases, the Internet, and public and private video cameras. Fusion centers access specially designed data-broker databases containing dossiers on hundreds of millions of individuals, including their Social Security numbers, property records, car rentals, credit reports, postal and shipping records, utility bills, gaming, insurance claims, social network activity, and drug- and food-store records. Some gather biometric data and utilize facial-recognition software. On-the-ground surveillance is collected, analyzed, and shared as well. For example, the San Diego fusion center purchased tiny cameras for law enforcement to attach to their shirt buttons, hats, and water bottles. Through the federal government's "Information Sharing Environment," information and intelligence is distributed to public entities, including state, local, and federal agencies, and private owners of "critical infrastructure," such as transportation, medical, and telecommunications infrastructure.

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