Mike Katz-Lacabe is known around city hall as the guy who brings a video camera to public meetings and posts his recordings online.
This weekend Katz-Lacabe stars in a Wall Street Journal story that examines the practice of randomly tracking license plates -- a process made possible by merging video cameras, databases and cheap data storage.
Katz-Lacabe filed a California Public Records Act request for his own license plate surveillance records. They had been taken by the San Leandro Police Department, which has a camera-equipped car dedicated to capturing plate numbers (see photo above).
He told the Journal that SLPD had 100 records of his two vehicles -- each stamped with a time and date -- including one snapshot of him and his girls in his own driveway.
Katz-Lacabe told Patch that he understands that police routinely call in suspicious plates to find out if the vehicle may be connected with a crime.
But he offered Patch two main objections to computer-based plate surveillance:
- that it ropes in everyone, the vast majority of whom are innocent citizens under no suspicion;
- and that, in the case of San Leandro at least, the information is being stored indefinitely.
To Katz-Lacabe, an elected school board member who makes his living as a computer security professional, indefinitely storing information about law-abiding citizens puts too much power in the hands of police.
"When you have such a rich database of information it's too tempting not to find other uses for it (than crime solving)," Katz-Lacabe told Patch. For instance, police could create a movement profile: "Are you going to an abortion clinic? Are you going to a medical marijuana dispensary?"
San Leandro Police Chief Sandra Spagnoli defended the department's use of the automated tracking technology to the Journal.
She told the Journal reporters a success story: when a homicide suspect from Las Vegas drove through our city, the auto-tracker spotted the car, police gave chase and made an arrest.
She also told the Journal reporters why SLPD was keeping a permanent record of the plate data.
"It's irresponsible if you have something that could solve a crime in the future, and you've dumped it," Spagnoli is quoted as saying.
License Plates Just One Aspect
The Journal story uses license plate surveillance as a case in point of the ever-expanding ability of law enforcement to keep track of us.
"Data about a typical American is collected in more than 20 different ways during everyday activities," the Journal reporters wrote based on their survey of techniques.
The reporters quoted an officer at the West Point Military Academy who studies tracking technologies. The officer wondered aloud what the Soviet Union would have done with today's tools.
"We don't have a police state," the officer told the Journal, "but we have the technology."
What do you think about license plate tracking technology? Is it a case where, if you got nothing to hide, why worry? Or is this tempting law enforcement to profile innocent citizens? Should San Leandro keep records indefinitely?