Government Surveillance Goes On the Road

Aug 17, 2016

In a climactic moment from the film, SPEED, Keanu Reeves makes a stunning discovery as to how Dennis Hopper’s bad guy knows their every move. He’s installed a video camera on the “don’t go below 50” bus. That moment was terrifying, invasive and prescient of a growing focus of today’s government surveillance: your vehicle.

There are so many things we do in our cars that we take for granted. We put on makeup, sing our hearts out, argue, cry and more. We consider the automobile our sanctuary. Even though it’s surrounded by windows, we believe we’re alone, even invisible.

We are neither.

Honorable, historical mention

Government surveillance is nothing new. The Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights directly mentions “search and seizure.”

A court case in 1928, however, clearly established what we now think of as Federally sanctioned reconnaissance and observation. It involved Washington State resident, Roy Olmstead, who was arrested and prosecuted in 1927 for smuggling liquor during prohibition. He was caught via unwarranted wiretapping. Roy fought it, claiming his Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights were violated.

The Supreme Court (headed by Justice William H. Taft, no less) ruled otherwise (Olmstead vs. the United States).

Even though the Olmstead decision was overturned in 1967, government surveillance has been growing by leaps and bounds. Over the years, it has become more sophisticated and specific.

This form of homeland security owes its innovation to the growth of eGovernment and Vehicle-to-Government (V2Gov) technology. The tools available have proved a huge benefit to the safety of our country and local communities.

From drones that can pinpoint an individual in their own backyard to surreptitiously infiltrating emails and beyond, it was only a matter of time before our hideaway on wheels was fair game. This begs the question, however, of whether compiling information on people in their cars crosses the line into privacy invasion.

To protect and serve (without you knowing it)

No one would argue that government surveillance is important for national security. Our country has survived several attacks in the last generation alone and “forewarned is forearmed.” Yet this form of “protect and serve” no longer just focuses on known criminals as “persons of interest.” The desire to get in front of a threat has expanded this web of scrutiny to include, well, everyone.

The Automated License Plate Reader (ALPR) and you

Meet the automated license plate reader (ALPR), a valued tool of law enforcement. It is outfitted with vehicle-to-government technology and can photograph thousands of plates per minute.

This form of government surveillance was first put into use by the DEA in 2008. Its goal was (and still is) to catch drug dealers and all around baddies. It can read both the front and back license plates, takes views of the overall vehicle and snap photos of the car’s inhabitants in real time.

The ability to capture who is inside a vehicle takes the capabilities of the fabled “red light camera” to the next level. The information can then be placed in a database to be read and studied as needed.

ALPRs are employed by more than 70% of law enforcement agencies, nationwide. The International Association of Chiefs of Police have a dedicated area on their website that extolls its benefits and uses, which are many.

Conversely, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has devoted countless pages on the implications of ALPR and government surveillance in general. Several states have also put certain restrictions on its use.

Concerns over invasion of privacy top the list, of course, but such things as inaccurate information, unrestricted access and others have also come to light. Among these is how that intelligence is used and by whom.

Information in the wrong hands

There is nothing new, of course, with concerns about cyber security and hackers within the eGovernment space. Personal information falling into the wrong hands is probably the biggest pain point for electronic communication.

But, what if some of those wrong hands belong to law enforcement officials?

While by no means representative of peace officers in general, there have been instances where information taken off of these cameras has been used to blackmail, extort, racially and economically profile and stalk private citizens.

The scramble to clean up the system has already begun, but it raises questions about how to regulate and police electronic connections successfully. This is especially chilling when those in charge of the oversight need oversight themselves.

The prophetic power of SPEED

Public transportation is also a player in the world of government surveillance. Audio has been added to many cameras installed in several buses around the country. No longer just soundless video, as used by the crude yet effective spy device in SPEED, these new devices are A/V masters of capturing both conversations and images.

The up-side of listening in on riders’ personal discussions is not as clear as that of the ALPR put into effect for the DEA. It’s got several lawmakers, administrators and passengers uncomfortable–think the overturned ruling on unwarranted wiretapping. Regardless, it is now common on many buses although it is unknown just how many and in which states.

The good, the bad, the “you decide” of government surveillance

As we move into the future of connected cars and truly embrace the Internet of Things (IoT) for our vehicles, we’re introducing more than cool, self-driving innovation. We’re not only enabling automobiles to talk to one another (V2V) and to public agencies (V2Gov), but creating a network of communication that makes what we once thought of as private available to just about anyone.

The role eGovernment plays in law enforcement has definitely shaped a safer, more protected world. It’s also opening up a conversation about what, exactly, the words “government surveillance” mean for everyday you.

Did you ever dream that, one day, your car would be no more private than an airport security checkpoint?

Is that a good thing?

Time will tell.

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