License Plate "Guns" and Privacy

This October 2004 Bruce Schneier blog entry on wholesale surveillance just showed up again on Dave Farber’s IP list. Worth a read. Some excerpts:

New Haven police have a new law enforcement tool: a license-plate scanner. Similar to a radar gun, it reads the license plates of moving or parked cars and links with remote police databases, immediately providing information about the car and owner…


Technology is fundamentally changing the nature of surveillance. Years ago, surveillance meant trench-coated detectives following people down streets. It was laborious and expensive, and was only used when there was reasonable suspicion of a crime. Modern surveillance is the policeman with a license-plate scanner, or even a remote license-plate scanner mounted on a traffic light and a policeman sitting at a computer in the station. It’s the same, but it’s completely different. It’s wholesale surveillance.

The effects of wholesale surveillance on privacy and civil liberties is profound; but unfortunately, the debate often gets mischaracterized as a question about how much privacy we need to give up in order to be secure. This is wrong. It’s obvious that we are all safer when the police can use all techniques at their disposal. What we need are corresponding mechanisms to prevent abuse, and that don’t place an unreasonable burden on the innocent.

I like Schneier’s last point. We haven’t blocked other forms of police data gathering, just put in place checks and balances.