Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“Government's view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidise it.”     Ronald Reagan

December 29, 2005

Public and Private Information

by Chris

Fuz posits the following:

What if two vehicles are hustling along a rural road, doing low-80s in a 75-limit zone, and a Highway Patrol vehicle comes from the opposite direction, suddenly pulls over, reverses direction, and catches up?

The patrol car hovers behind the rear of the two vehicles for about 4 minutes, then passes, hovers behind the front-runner for a few minutes, then lights up and pulls the front-runner over?

Mama-san, passenger with me in the rear vehicle, asks “Why didn’t he just pull the guy over instead of waiting so long?”

I, driver of the rear vehicle, replied “He ran the plates.”

“Wouldn’t he do that after pulling him over?”

“No, he wants to make sure he’s not pulling over some psycho who’ll try to shoot him. He wants to know whether this will be a one-unit stop, or a two- or three-unit. Bench warrant, multiple traffic violations, expired registration, Al Qaeda, you name it. Run the plates first, know what you’re getting into.”

Then the wheels were turning. He surely ran our plates too. Hmmmm, the patrolman was probably thinking, serviceman and his wife and kiddies. Nothing interesting here . . . The guy in the front tripped the radar. What about him?

Which makes me wonder: how many times have my plates been run, either by obvious marked patrol vehicles or air units, or by unmarkeds just weaving through busy traffic? What about when optical-character recognition technology is mated with radar camera units and fast, fast realtime connection to the databases, allowing hundreds of plates to be “run” per minute? The potential there for loss of privacy would be staggering. The anonymity of the herd would be gone if it isn’t already. The consequences of minor errors, either in the tag records themselves or in the data pipeline between the camera and the DMV, would be enormous.

Johnny Law will assert that he has the power to use government-owned information and commerically-available technology to enhance the apprehension of lawbreakers. How can one object, unless one is caught redhanded and wriggling to escape? The syllogism: the innocent have nothing to fear, therefore the fearful are not innocent.

So how should the civil libertarian respond to this development?

As unfortunate as this is, there is no rational libertarian argument against the actions of the officer as laws currently stand.

License plates are the property of the state. By affixing them to your vehicle, and operating it on the public roads, you are implicitly giving the state the authority to view these plates, and to access the public records associated with them.

Now as to whether this data can be collected and indefinitely retained for criminal investigation, surveliance, or profiling purposes, that’s another question entirely.

Numerous times, in many courts, the argument has been presented that an officer could not arrest someone, because they had no probable cause to run the plates which resulted in a warrant hit and subsequent traffic stop. In all cases these arguments have been dismissed, because the plate number is indeed public information; as is your vehicle registration, and any number of other records that many individuals assume to be private.

I had a similar incident happen just the other day. I was driving home just above the speed limit, when a super trooper got up close enough to me to read my plate, then backed off for about 2 minutes, then accelerated and passed me by. My fiancee seated next to me wondered about his behavior and I said “He was running the plate”, to which she responded “Well, it’s not like we’ve got anything to worry about”.

That reminded me of something that happened to me a few years back. I was driving just at the limit when a local cop pulled in behind me for about five minutes, ran my plates, and then pulled me over. Unbeknownst to me, I had a bench warrant for an unpaid ticket. When I asked the officer why he ran my plate, he answered with refreshing honesty “Because I had nothing better to do”.

This is a basic principle of law, in that public information can be used for any purpose not specifically prohibited by law; and that includes vehicle registration, driving records, birth, death, and marriage records, certain tax and travel records… I could go on.

So what they are doing is in no way illegal, or unconstitutional. The question is, SHOULD IT BE specifically prohibited by law?

Honestly, with the current regulatory regime we live under in our society, this is a prefectly justifiable and correct use of information.

But there is no question that it makes us less free; and that, by it’s nature is evil.

The only way to rationally address this is to make these records non-public information. Either through the elimination of the records entirely (an unlikely, and in some ways unwise thing), or by the re-classification of many public records, as private.

I see no reason why my driving records, vehicle registrations, accident record, or any number of other records as I describe above SHOULD be public records; except as an instrument of governmental control. Perhaps all of these, and any other record the government keeps on us, whatever few those can be reduced to in a practical society (and that’s another issue altogether), should be treated as is our PHI/PCI (Private Healthcare Information/ Private and Confidential Information) wherein the use of the records must at all times require either a court order, or the consent of the subject or legal custodian of those records.

It would of course complicate matters greatly as regards law enforcement, but in the presence of a pervasive computing environment (which is not far off), it could certainly be technically possible.

It would be an easy re-write of the laws, and a massive policy and infrastructure undertaking; but no more so than the HIPAA and Sarbanes-Oxley requirements that have been recently promulgated on business.

I think that this is the most likely, and most reasonable compromise position; Al-Quaeda or no.

H/T: Jed at Freedomsight

Reposted from The Anarchangel

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2 Comments

  1. You have not mentioned “transponder” technology. They have been part of the aircraft industry for quite some time to identify aircraft as commercial, friendly or military. With toll roads these transponders have become a part of everyday motor vehicles in order to facilitate high speed billing of each vehicle so equiped.

    The next logical step would be for all vehicles to be equiped with such a transponder at the factory and then to cross reference ownership at the time of registration to an owner. Then it would be quite easy to track vehicles in any location as it passed a transponder reader. As of now, these are only used to collect tolls; how easy would it be to generate an individual’s personal habits if these were located all over the common roadways, not just the toll plazas?

    Comment by TF Stern — December 29, 2005 @ 8:19 pm
  2. In fact, several states are already doing so, in preparation for ticketing programs. Pilots have been conducted in at least NJ that I know of, as well as across the pond in England.

    The state is not your friend

    Comment by Chris Byrne — December 29, 2005 @ 8:24 pm

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