Every Move You Make

Soon the police will always be watching every public move you make:

A vast system that tracks the comings and goings of anyone driving around the District. … More than 250 cameras in the District and its suburbs scan license plates in real time. ..

With virtually no public debate, police agencies have begun storing the information from the cameras, building databases that document the travels of millions of vehicles. … The District [of Columbia] … has more than one plate-reader per square mile, the highest concentration in the nation. Police in the Washington suburbs have dozens of them as well … creating a comprehensive dragnet that will include all the approaches into the District. … The data are kept for three years in the District. … Police can also plug any license plate number into the database and, as long as it passed a camera, determine where that vehicle has been and when. …

The tag readers … cost about $20,000 each. … The District has 73 readers; 38 of them sit stationary and the rest are attached to police cars. D.C. officials say every police car will have one some day. … The District’s … officers make an average of an arrest a day directly from the plate readers. … There are no laws governing how or when Washington area police can use the tag reader technology. … 37 percent of large police agencies in the United States now use license plate reader technology. (more; also)

As prices rapidly fall, this will be widely deployed. Unless there is a public outcry, which seems unlikely at the moment, within twenty years most traffic intersections will probably have tag readers, neighboring jurisdictions will share databases, and so police will basically track all cars all the time. With this precedent, cameras that track pedestrians and people in cars via their faces and gaits will follow within another decade or two.

If firms tried to set up camera networks to collect and sell similar info, I would expect an outcry and regulations to stop them. But police will be not only be allowed to continue, they’ll probably also usually succeed in intimidating citizens away from recording police interactions with citizens, no matter what the official rules say.

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  • Morrey

    This systematic license-plate surveillance is merely another minor symptom of the steady U.S. drift toward totalitarianism. The totalitarian objective is control of the populace; and the populace must be constantly watched to fully control them.

    Of course, the original purpose of license-plates was always for surveillance & control of the populace — video/computer technology is just making it much easier now for the government establishment.

    Why is it we ‘need’ automobile license-plates at all (??)

    License-plates merely inform observers that the owner of the vehicle has legally registered that machine with the government, and paid the required fees. There’s NO fundamental reason why a ‘uniquely identifying’ ‘license-plate’ is required for that registration function. A small non-unique window decal would serve as well… or merely a paper copy of the registration slip in the glove compartment. VIN numbers under the windshield of all vehicles already eliminate any {legitimate} need for license-plates.

    The police have NO general legal need for the capability to positively identify a vehicle’s owner when a car is driving down a road… any more than a need to identify people walking down a city sidewalk. If the police observe or have probable cause that a specific vehicle has broken the law, they can follow or stop the vehicle… and then determine its ‘registration’ status.

    However, license-plates have long been a major citizen-surveillance tool for the police, which is now the PRIMARY purpose of license-plates. (..same applies to drivers-licenses — where general personal-identification is now their primary purpose)

    Government license-plates are no doubt very helpful to the police in controlling the “bad-guys” and monitoring the general citizenry. But it would also be quite helpful to the police if all persons were required to wear a large, visible name tag (with their social-security or other unique number) when out in public.

    Car theft is a problem, but so is jewelry theft; we don’t require $30,000 wedding rings nor expensive laptop computers to have public ‘license’ tags, so they may be more easily tracked if stolen.

    The very existence of vehicle license plates is a significant privacy & civil liberties issue, but people are so indoctrinated to this abusive & unnecessary intrusion… they don’t notice at all.

    • Mark M

      Sorry – this is funny to me. I rarely laugh out loud when reading anything on the internet, but this time a small chuckle escaped before I caught myself.

      The part that made me laugh is the final part about indoctrination. The reason I laughed is this is absolutely true. Although I’m skeptical about the rest of your post, I thought that it was worth thinking about your point of view if only to understand how and why it’s wrong.

      However, I fully agree that the indoctrination part is true. I laughed because it doesn’t matter if everything else you wrote is true or not – you’re never going to change it. You could spend your whole life crusading against license plates and driver’s licenses, and you’ll never change a thing about it. It might be a view worth expressing in a post on someone’s blog, but it isn’t a fight worth fighting. So now I don’t have any desire to think through the rest of your post. That’s the funny part. I know when to cut my losses.

      • PA

        a) A unwillingness to laugh at something you think to be funny, an expectation you shouldn’t.


        b) A general attitude of superiority and uncaring.


        c) Indoctrinated against indoctrination.

        Funny, hypocritical.

        At least, thats how your “comment” (we’ll call it that for lack of a better word) comes off.

        a) I try to enjoy life. Including, but not limited to, the Internet.

        b) I read these things because I care enough to read them. I read them because I don’t think I know everything.

        c) Indoctrination exists. Evil exists. That’s not an argument against lowering the levels of evil. That can’t even be termed “cutting losses”. I try to talk to your sort, because I know the alternative is way worse (your sort sounding like the only sort to have a valid opinion).

      • Mark M

        PA: The unwillingness to laugh is because I read these posts in a mostly very quiet cube farm. There is definitely an expectation that I shouldn’t burst out into a fit of laughter. (Also – how funny are economist blogs, really?)

        General attitude of superiority and uncaring? Not sure where that comes from.

        I only have so much time and need to pick my battles. Siding with an argument that initially declares there is a totalitarian conspiracy to control the populace immediately places your credibility on the fringe. Attacking a long-indoctrinated nearly world-wide policy of using license plates from the fringe is more than enough to push you over the edge. Credibility lost! It no longer matters if you are right or wrong, you can’t change policy like this.

        Knowing this, and given competing demands for a limited amount of time, the entire argument is not worth spending my time to evaluate. It might be interesting to do so, and if I had more free time I might. I have no evaluation of whether it’s worth your time. You simply might be more interested than I am. That’s not a matter of superiority. It’s a matter of differing interests.

        By the way – I read this blog and comments specifically to find new and different opinions and ways of thinking. I know I don’t know everything and I enjoy reading other opinions – not to refute them, but to open my own mind to other points of view and consider other ways of thinking.

        But I’m also practical. From a practical point of view, even if this argument against license plates is wholly correct, it’ll never be useful because you’ll never get people and politicians to accept it for the reasons I’ve already given.

      • Will W

        PA – I made the mistake of reading Mark M’s post first. I did not take his position as being condescending. In his reality there are things that he feels won’t change. I am new to this site but I have been here for over an hour. (Just Bookmarked!) I think you were on point but your reaction to perceived criticism means you are passionate about your belief. I look forward to finding people who understand the progressive threat to our Liberty. However, I must quote Abe Lincoln “I do not like that man. I must get to know him better.” This is a cool site!

  • Mark M

    I expect privacy advocates to eventually raise awareness, politicians to use it to their advantage, and privacy laws to prevent widespread sharing of the information collected.

    This won’t stop all the information sharing, which will then be the source of new scandals. Conspiracy theories will be strengthened.

    Sharing will probably require something similar to a search or wire-tap warrant, and wars will be waged between whether the restrictions are too strict or too lax. For certain people, the laws will never be strict enough. For others, the laws will never be relaxed enough. So it goes…

    Although I’m sure the restrictions will be put in place, this is based upon the expectation that alarmists raise the alarm. Please continue.

    I don’t know how this relates to allowing police to intimidate citizens into not recording police interactions. I don’t see that as a consequence of widespread information gathering and sharing of individual comings and goings.

    • PA

      I’m not sure you read the same article I did.

      It seemed to me it was about how privacy advocates must not be enough. Like, laws failing to be passed preventing these violations.

      Also, you’re right, police not being monitored doesn’t logically follow. That’s why the author linked to the other article that explains a state of affairs, not a logically following result.

      Your definition of “alarmist” is also pretty vague, though you seem to mean anyone who cares, about, you know, life, freedom, or liberty.

      • Mark M

        I agree that privacy advocates haven’t been enough. Yet. My point is that they haven’t yet rallied, but they will.

        This post wasn’t particularly alarmist, however, it’s more alarmist than I would expect from a reasonable forecast. The article doesn’t consider the impact of privacy advocates and politicians who are looking for a cause that demonstrates they will fight against “big brother.” The alarms haven’t reached that critical mass yet, but they will. It’s too easy a target.

        If taking video of police was intended to be a separate topic unrelated to monitoring, why is it even part of this article? It sure wasn’t written in a way that suggests it should be considered separately.

  • IVV

    Perhaps there should be increased sharing? Both the police and the citizenry able to watch each other in real time?

    • Amanda

      Actually, the trend is moving in the opposite direction, with many police agencies encrypting previously publicly available radio transmissions. Not surprisingly, both instances are being justified “in the interest of public safety.”

    • IVV

      …and we’re back to Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri:

      “Beware he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart, he dreams himself your master.”

  • The technologies needed to do this with facial recognition already exist. It’s just a matter of connecting the right databases to cameras. I’ve seen an academic proof of concept video where someone did just that with a camera around his neck.

    • Dave

      This is true. You can even buy cameras such as the Panasonic Lumix GF-2
      that can be programed to recognize and name your children or anyone else when you take their picture. Many digital cameras have come with face recognition technology for quite some time. This works quite well. I have a camera that can recognize 10 faces. I have read that people’s pictures are being scanned from Facebook and can be entered into a data base.

      Big Brother is watching you.

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  • If firms tried to set up camera networks to collect and sell similar info, I would expect an outcry and regulations to stop them.

    There was a bit of outcry about Google Street View, but not nearly enough to produce regulatory action. Yes, Google ended up blurring faces to protect people’s privacy, but they only did this with the publicly released images. Goggle doubtlessly still has the originals.

    In other words, the Google situation seems to conflict with your claim that the government is enjoying a special free pass from the public. People’s reaction to both Google and the tag readers is consistent with them only caring that their whereabouts are publicly available. I predict that if either the government or Google tried to sell the data, there would be similar levels of objection.

  • John Galt

    Suggestion: Set up a camera outside the parking lot at the local police station. Capture all the license plates of cars going in and out. Post the list publicly.

    Watch the reaction.

  • carl213

    This is inevitable. Moore’s Law means it will only get cheaper and easier in coming years.
    There will be abuses and occasional pushback, but then there will be a high-profile violent crime or terrorist attack and the public will demand more cameras.

    It will be trivial in 20 years to track, in real-time, the movements of every single vehicle in the United States — every car, boat, traain, truck and plane.

    To be honest, this will be pretty easy to do with individual people as well.

    And in a future of cheap and easy bio-engineering, tracking individuals will be the only way to stop some of the worst imaginable crimes.

    The next step is predictive modeling of the behavior of vehicles (and ultimately individuals) to detect patterns of potential criminality.

    • PA

      While I agree with what you have to say (on the side of technical feasibility), you’re fundamentally wrong if you think its about Moore’s Law.

      That’s an old marketing term describing physical components shrinking; something we can’t really do reliably for much longer (beyond a 3-4 years). Circuit sophistication is where the advances are happening now, not some crude law that never really underwent much of a scientific appeal process (to my knowledge, though I’m not a scientist).

      The technology we need, we already have. Its just a matter of some large business popularizing a product (like say, Facebook), and that process being socially integrated and mandated into law. (Oh the horrors, I can just imagine FB becoming universal ID, no I did not want to change the status on my car license plate 😛 ).

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  • Stephen Bronstein

    The Supreme Court just heard oral arguments for a case around GPS trackers – do police need a search warrant to put a tracker on the car? Wired article here:


    They actually seemed pretty skeptical of the govt’s arguments so perhaps for once they will actually decide in favor of civil liberty.

    The questions they were asking (well, at least some of them) would apply to tracking everyone’s movements via license plate cameras too. However, it is hard to see this Supreme Court forbidding the exec branch (at any level of govt) from ‘merely’ recording video and analyzing the results.

    • That case is discussed in the article quoted in the post above. I’ll bet at 4-1 odds against the SC in this case banning the wide tag reader use described in the article.

  • I approve of greater knowledge, including in the hands of police. I just hope the citizenry also gain knowledge of the activities of the authorities. Failing that, I still think that (all else equal) more knowledge available to police is an improvement.

  • Mike

    As to your last point — if you assume the advance of technology will allow the mass proliferation of cameras, wouldn’t you also assume the eventual availability of tiny life-recording cameras (whether the science-fictiony ocular implants or just pinhole cameras with vast storage), thus making it difficult for the police to tell who’s recording them? Do you think the police will make it illegal for people to look at them?

  • Ian Maxwell

    The implication here is that we generally approve of police, and so we want to give them lots of power while taking power away from their enemies. So if you actually want to do something to reverse this trend, working to reduce general approval of police might work pretty well.

    Of course, an alternate interpretation is that the people who actually have influence on laws approve of police (since police protect them most of all), and it doesn’t really matter what the rest of us think.

  • PA

    Sorry, I’m going to be less than serious for a second…


  • Anonymous

    Questions for those more in the two:
    1- In which countries in the world are there similiar trends?
    2- Which Western countries (in case I want to move to avoid it) are these trends least likely, or at least will take the longest to occur?

  • The problem (as always) isn’t the police having the data, but doing something inappropriate with the data once they have it. Society (and those who want to be police) are unwilling to exert (or allow to be exerted) the kind of oversight on police to ensure that police powers are not abused.

    This is the problem of power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely.

    If the police only focused their efforts on the dregs of society, the poor, ethnic minorities, people of color, young people, (the 90%) then the elite 10% wouldn’t care at all what they did. The objections in these cases are when rich people, the 10%, get innocently caught up in what the police are doing and are inconvenienced by having to hide or cover up their illegal activity. The problem with electronic surveillance is that cameras can’t be bribed or coerced to forget what they saw their betters do. They also can’t be manipulated into finding guilt where none exists but the police need a scapegoat.

    There are no objections when innocent people are executed, provided the innocent person is one of the 90% dregs (as defined by those in power). That is why the tea party cheered over the executions in Texas even though it is extremely likely that some of those executed were innocent.

    Cell phone companies already track the locations of cell phone users. All it would take to locate cell phone users is receivers that can receive cell phone signals and identify unique users. Encryption won’t help because there must be some unique non-encrypted signal that tells the normal receiver what decryption algorithm to use. Follow those unique signals around and eventually it will be trivial to connect a unique signature to a unique human identification.

    In DC, the location of every Metro Pass card is tracked. If you paid for it electronically, then your ID is attached to that card and they know when you get on and when you get off the Metro, every single time. There are probably cameras recording your face every time you use it. There are probably other cryptic pass card readers, likely with longer range than the ones used at the stations. I would guess that each metal detector at government buildings is also a pass card reader.

    Cameras identifying license plates is to try and locate those without cell phones who don’t use Metro. They could give everyone a cell phone and it would be cheaper. Then they could also record conversations remotely.

  • rdb

    Chris Paget’s Extreme-range RFID tracking(PDF) on reading EPC Gen2 tags at ~200ft up from 30ft with commercial readers is also of interest.
    “Gen2-compliant tags are currently being issued as
    part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative; this includes the US Passport Card, the NEXUS,
    FAST, and SENTRI border-crossing cards, as well as the Enhanced Drivers Licence that is currently
    being issued by several US states and many Canadian provinces.”

  • Michael Wengler

    David Brin’s concept of Omniveillance is a good start at thinking of what the future will be like. Since it will be cheap and easy to see and hear and publish things, it is a pretty safe bet that no matter what principles you start out with, the society will simply have much more stuff seen and known and checked from multiple sources out there.

    I do not personally know why I would care if some database contains data which could be used to track location of my car. As long as the intelligent person is largely aware of what is going on, s/he will still circumvent the gov’t should that be necessary (anybody for an adhesive or even magnetic photograph of a different license plate that can be applied to your car when you don’t wish to be tracked?) That stupid criminal or criminals behind the curve will be caught is a feature, not a bug.

    I’d rather see people going after “fairness” in justice in different ways other than trying to maintain a 20th century standard of ignorance in the policing departments. How about laws against selective prosecutions? Requirements that all interactions between a person and the police be recorded AND that all such recordings are turned over routinely and swiftly to the person questioned? I’d rather see a much cheaper speeding ticket in California with pervasive automatic enforcement than the current crap-shoot version where if you get a cop on the wrong day you’ve got a $500 ticket for doing a few miles over the speed limit, at a speed that is hardly ever ticketed.

    Gigantic human societies with great technologies ideally will use those technologies to smooth the rough edges between people. The police, when doing what I think of as their REAL job, are a very important component of that smoothing function (being a victim of crime or car accidents SUCKS) and my engineer-soul shouts to me that technology can help them do that job better.

  • Abelard Lindsey

    Just make it a point to flip the bird at every camera you encounter. That’s what I do.

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  • Lars P

    As prices continue to fall, this will be easily doable even by individual hobbyists. I have a clear view of the I-880 from my window, and could easily record all cars passing it, given the right equipment.

    I think this technology is inevitable. I think that governments using it is inevitable. The only thing that can go either way is if regular citizens will be allowed to use it too. That might be something worth fighting for.

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