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Revelations about a stored data base of Virginia license plates is another reminder that changing technology requires public vigilance.
Sunday, August 25, 2013
Virginians shaken by the revelation that the National Security Agency has been keeping a record of their phone calls, along with those of every other person’s in America, now have this to ponder:
At the request of the U.S. Secret Service, Virginia State Police recorded and stored every Virginia license plate on vehicles that passed the Pentagon headed into Washington, D.C., for the first inauguration of President Obama in 2009.
The Secret Service’s intent was apolitical. As the agency charged with protecting presidential candidates and their running mates, it wanted the data as an added security measure. State police had done the same three months earlier, in Leesburg, at campaign rallies both for Obama and for Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Virginians who attended any of the events needn’t worry their political interests are on permanent file. At the time, state police stored data for up to three years.
Even if the three-year window had not closed, though, residents of the commonwealth have the reassurance that the state police now purge the license plate data it collects within 24 hours, unless it is directly related to a well-defined criminal investigation.
This is thanks to an opinion issued in February by state Attorney General, now Republican candidate for governor, Ken Cuccinelli. In that, at least, he will find supporters across the spectrum of political thought.
Anyone who is politically active ought to get the heebie-jeebies at the thought of ending up in a government database that can track their participation.
No one is suggesting the license plate information was gathered for anything other than the legitimate purpose of trying to assure the safety of candidates for high office — or, should that fail, to investigate a crime. Yet the potential for abuse is easily imagined, and chilling.
Yet citizens’ expectation of freedom to engage openly in peaceful political activities without fear of later retribution has a cost to public safety.
Cuccinelli advised the state police that its practice of passively collecting and storing data gathered by automated license plate readers, unrelated to any specific criminal investigation, violated Virginia’s Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act.
The department had stored about 8 million images, beginning in 2010, but all of the data was purged in March — to the regret of the program’s coordinator.
State Police Sgt. Robert Alessi told The Richmond Times-Dispatch the archived database was valuable. Police could search a date and time for a vehicle fitting a description of one at a certain location related to a crime. “I probably made 15 or 20 cases over the last few years,” as a result.
The public need is ongoing for full disclosure about the capabilities of all emerging technologies and what the state is doing to ensure program oversight.
The line between security and personal freedom grows razor thin as technology races ahead of people’s ability to grasp the implications and agree on necessary limits to how much access we want others to have to our lives, and who should control it.
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