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Big Brother in little Carolina - city wants surveillance cameras catching every car's plate

Most people think of the proliferation of cameras in London, and last year’s coverage of similar work in New York City, as a big city affair – sort of Big Brother in the big city.  But once you make it out of a metropolis like LA, Chicago or Miami, the camera craze should die down and, short of the occasional store security camera or traffic light system, you’d expect a little more anonymity.  Last month in a presentation to security professionals, Microsoft’s Chief Security Strategist Douglas Cavit even likened the use of a car’s license plate tag as an innocuous and privacy respecting identification tool – unless you did something wrong, you could feel relatively assured of your anonymity while driving in your car.  After a recent DHS grant application in North Carolina, Cavit might look to refine his analogy.

Located on the southeast coast of North Carolina, Wilmington is far from a booming metropolis, with just under 100,000 residents estimated in 2007.  Along with the nearby Wrightsville Beach, the cities want to record license plate numbers for every vehicle that crosses the bridge between the two communities as well as a couple other locations within the area.  The tag details would be compared against the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database.

“A lot of people might say it’s Big Brother at work,” said John Carey, Chief of Police in Wrightsville Beach.  ”There is no expectation of privacy to a license plate number,” as it is essentially a vehicular public record.

Chief Carey suggests the information in the NCIC is there for a reason, and this type of check won’t matter to most citizens.  What Carey doesn’t keep up with surrounds the NCIC database and accuracy reviews.  The NC Police expect to take the database contents as gospel.  Originally, the NCIC was only intended for major criminal offender information.  That was expanded in the late 90′s to include civil cases such as stalking or domestic abuse.  After 9/11, immigration and terrorist data began infiltrating the NCIC.  As the database’s scope expands, so to has the outcry.  Peace Activists found their way into the NCIC.  The New York Immigration Coalition appealed to the local city government to change their arrest policies. the Electronic Privacy Information Center has an online petition drive to allow NCIC citizen redress.  As databases age, they must be deconflicted and purged lest they lose their efficiency.

The most interesting point from a privacy rights standpoint is the persistence of the effort.  The cities expect to maintain the license tag information collected for about a year.  They do not say how frequently they will review the data or how often it will be compared against the NCIC.  From a general privacy policy standpoint, the Wrightsville and Willmington Police Departments are collecting information without specific knowledge of how they plan on using it, how often it will be accessed, or how long they will maintain the records.  It is unknown if they will have access policies or regulations/audits of how the information will actually be used.  These are all points a bank would have to address with their customers prior to embarking on a program with a third party marketing company.

“It’s not a legitimate use of this technology to be storing information on innocent citizens on the off chance that someday law enforcement might want to track this person down for some reason,” said Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.  “This is another example of how technology is getting ahead of our laws.”

Above all else, this is a very slippery slope.  What starts as an automated plate check for criminals could easily become detectives checking a suspects alibi on an open case, Private Investigator access for a divorce proceeding, or even noticing the mayor’s car has an extra passenger and blackmail or other corruption.  The New York City Police Department had problems with their NCIC access – what’s to stop local NC police officers from poking around?

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