Mining for ‘Gold’

Posted Jan. 24, 2010, at 4:49 p.m.

The advances made in information-based technology make law enforcement efforts more efficient and effective. A recent case in which a child molester was identified is a case in point. Investigators observed a beer can in the background of a child pornography photo posted on the Internet as being a product distributed in just a few states. The victim wore distinctive Disney glasses. Calls made by Maine investigators to optometrists and ophthalmologists in those states eventually solved the case.

But when information-based technology is used in random fashion it conflicts with the level of privacy most of us come to expect as Americans. It’s hard to define just when that line has been crossed. But imagine the reaction that law-abiding shoppers would have if everyone leaving the Bangor Mall were searched for shoplifted items.

The recent news story about the South Portland Police Department using a new technology that automatically photographs license plates and sends the tag numbers to a national crime database should be greeted with wariness. If the national crime database finds a match with a stolen vehicle, or if the registered owner is wanted by police, the officer is alerted. The database of recorded license plates is purged after 30 days.

Currently, police officers do not have to justify contacting their dispatch center to have a license plate checked for outstanding warrants on the registered owner, or for getting a list of the owner’s violations. So in many ways, the ongoing scanning of plates is not a change in police procedure.

But in a subtle way, this relentless surveillance violates the spirit of the Constitution, if not the letter. What if a scan misread a tag and identified the car’s elderly woman owner as someone who had abducted her child? The mistake would be cleared up eventually, but the wrongfully accused woman’s time would be taken, along with her dignity, and she likely would endure anxiety and probably some anger.

In the highly charged days after the 9-11 attacks, the federal government engaged in some of these same “guilty until proven innocent” tactics, scanning e-mail messages of millions of people and eavesdropping on phone calls. That approach was wrong, most Americans now agree.

“Information is gold in this field,” South Portland police Lt. Frank Clark told the Associated Press, in justifying the scanning. “The more information we have and the earlier the officers have it, the safer it will make them. It gives them a quick red flag before they approach the situation.”

True enough. But the quest for that “gold” always must be constrained or the nation would turn into a police state. It may be premature to ban the license plate scanning technology, but its use ought to be monitored.

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