EDITORIAL: License-plate database is small potatoes in privacy debate

EDITORIAL: License-plate database is small potatoes in privacy debate
File photo

(Photo/File Photo)

It is certainly tempting to get up in arms about the revelation that local police have — since 2011 — tracked and stored the location of motor vehicles around the city using license-plate readers.

This is, after all, the summer of Big Brother, when just about every week exposes another hidden effort by government agencies to keep tabs on Americans. But when it comes to license-plate readers, which the American Civil Liberties Union blasted as an invasion of privacy in a recently released report, we have trouble getting our dander up.

First, there are obvious crime-fighting applications to such a database. Knowing a suspect’s haunts benefits detectives working a case. And if an individual poses a threat to the public, proper use of the technology could result in a quick arrest.

It also is important to note that driving is a privilege — not a right. Motorists must obtain a license from the state before getting behind the wheel, a process that often involves classes and a test.

Residents also must register their vehicles with authorities and, in many states, have proof of insurance. Reasonable people understand that this information is kept on file somewhere.

And while license-plate readers make the job of tracking vehicles and searching for — as well as finding — alleged criminals all the easier for police, it’s a practice authorities could carry out in a low-tech manner. As Alexandria Police Department spokesman Lt. Mark Bergin noted, the agency could send out officers armed with pens and notepads for the same purpose.

Lastly, it behooves us to mention that all claims to privacy go out the window when a person — and their property — enters the public sphere. Earlier, we noted that a police officer equipped with stationary supplies could do the same job as the department’s vehicle-mounted cameras. That’s also the case for a private detective or a nosey neighbor; unless you have a private garage, you can be tracked by your vehicle’s license plate.

Lest we be mistaken, this is not a wholesale embrace of the department’s practice. For instance, we wish officials had alerted residents to these devices sooner, along with their justification for using them. Anything that can be taken as an invasion of privacy — rightly or wrongly — should be disclosed in the name of transparency and good public relations.

So we hope the police department, and City Hall by extension, thinks a little harder next time when it takes advantage of a technology that could be misconstrued. How about this for a litmus test: If you’re collecting information on law-abiding citizens not connected to a criminal investigation, maybe let them know?