Does Grover need such ‘homeland security’?

The city's use of federal money to read license plates looks more like a loss of civil liberties

November 5, 2011 

The Grover Beach Police Department is going to grab $133,000 in Homeland Security money to use for electronic license plate readers. Are you feeling safer?

I’m not, for two reasons.

First, there is precious little nexus between these scanners and thwarting terrorists. Using Homeland Security money this way is in fact part of a decade-long, pork-barrel operation.

Second, the electronic devices are yet another whack upside the head of our Constitution, the Fourth and Fifth Amendments in particular.

The scanners in question go to Grover Beach under a program designed to “help protect the (nation’s) critical structure from terrorism,” according to a county staff report.

In this case, the critical structure is the Pacific Crossing Cable Landing Station, which connects the U.S. to Japan and other points via fiber-optic cable. It is one of three stations in San Luis Obispo County.

Now, I am as eager as the next guy to keep these connections to the larger world up and running. But my question is, how do license plate readers keep us safe?

I’m sure a very thin argument could be made alleging a feeble connection. But I’m equally sure that it would be quite a stretch.

I’m not alone in that line of thinking. Matt Mayer, a visiting fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told me that Homeland Security money is “clearly supplanting local funds.”

In other words, a local police or sheriff’s department might want a particular piece of equipment, but local taxpayers won’t fork over for it. So they look for other pots of money. Homeland Security funds have been providing such pelf since the Homeland Security Department came into being a decade ago.

And, oh joy, it is not coming from the local government’s tax coffers. Local leaders who have their paws out for state or local funds love to make this argument, as though state and federal grants are free money, when in fact the dinero is merely coming from a different taxpayer pocket.

Homeland Security “has become pork barrel spending,” Mayer said, and he should know: He was director of grant spending under Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. Mayer says the department needs to become “more rigorous” in selecting grantees, and funnel grant money to places that have greater populations and are more vulnerable. He says the Obama administration has been moving in that direction.

The constitutional argument is more elusive because it is more abstract to people in general. But it is important. According to an article in digitalcommunities.com, “license plate recognition systems typically consist of cameras mounted on police squad cars or in fixed locations. The cameras are linked to an optical character recognition (OCR) processor that reads the data and compares it to one or more databases.

“In the event of a ‘hit’ on a license plate in a stolen vehicle database, for example, an alarm alerts officers of the match,” the article says.

In other words, the scanners can clearly be put to good use, such as finding vehicles sought under Amber Alerts or locating stolen cars.

So what’s wrong with that?

Here’s what: the possibility of abuse and the lack of transparency.

Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which calls itself the “ACLU of the Internet,” sees license plate readers as another ingredient in the Orwellian stew of lost privacy that has sneaked into all our lives with advances in technology.

Simply put, unless we have some way of keeping an eye on those who use this technology, they can use it for everything from keeping tabs on an old girlfriend to monitoring the movements of political enemies.

Tien said, and I agree, that residents of places whose law enforcement uses this technology should have a citizens’ commission or “some kind of official body that asks questions and requires transparency.”

My own take on all this is that the general public probably is not aware of the gradual erosion of their liberties, and a sizable portion of them wouldn’t care if they were aware.

I believe that, increasingly, Americans are coming to view protections provided by the Bill of Rights as quaint anachronisms, things that once were nice but that have no place in the modern world.

They think technology never would be used against them. To which I say, dream on.

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