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EDITORIAL: Balance public concerns, police technology
[December 30, 2010]

EDITORIAL: Balance public concerns, police technology

Dec 30, 2010 (Walla Walla Union-Bulletin - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Smile. You're on Big Brother's camera.

There is something creepy about how advances in technology can be used to watch the comings and goings of innocent Americans. Cameras have been posted at intersections to snap photos of cars that speed through red lights. Monitors have been pointed at public streets, public sidewalks and public parks where drugs and crime have run rampant.

Now a device that allows authorities to capture and process more than 100,000 license-plate images in an hour is being employed around the country. When a match with a stolen car or some other warrant is found, an alert is issued, often leading to an arrest Yes, there is something creepy about it, but there is also something comforting about it.

This technology isn't doing anything that couldn't be done by a pair of human eyes, hands and file folders. Police officers could be stationed at all these locations. They could observe, take notes and call the office to check official records. The cost would be astronomical.

Technology is supposed to make things faster, easier and less expensive. Kudos to all the law enforcement agencies that utilize these devices to make them more efficient with time and money. It keeps the public safer and holds down expenses.

But with the kudos also comes a caution. If the public becomes too creeped out because agencies are using the devices such as the license-plate reader to keep tabs on people who haven't done anything wrong then all the advantages could go out the window.

Used correctly, these devices certainly meet constitutional standards. They are recording things in public places that would be viewable by anyone there. There is no right to privacy when you are in public.

One of the biggest concerns is the license-plate reader's ability to store all these images in a database. Each time a car goes past one of the scanners, the information goes into the database. With enough of these devices scattered around, the database could include everywhere you went. Some agencies store the data for a couple of days, others for up to six months.

As technology gets better and better there are going to be more and more concerns. Somehow there has to be a way to take into consideration the uncomfortable feeling people get when they believe they are being spied on with the justifiable methods of making law enforcement more efficient.

A good place to start is with the database. A case can be made that keeping the database for a week or so makes sense. That way if there is a report of a kidnapping or some other crime the records could be checked to see if the suspect traveled along a certain route.

Any longer than that, however, creates more public concern about how the data may be used.

"You can always misuse a technology," Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, was quoted as saying in a Tribune Washington Bureau story. "But a widespread misuse is going to be pretty limited if you're not saving the records of innocent people." To see more of the Union-Bulletin or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to Copyright (c) 2010, Walla Walla Union-Bulletin Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For more information about the content services offered by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services (MCT), visit

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