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Another View - Mark Warden: Big Brother surveillance doesn't belong in NH

January 03. 2014 12:40AM

LEGISLATION IS pending in the New Hampshire House to allow police departments to acquire automated license plate readers (ALPR or LPR) in order to increase by magnitude the number of vehicles that can be monitored on local streets near you.

While generally we want law enforcement to have the latest gadgets to track criminals, this technology has far too much potential for misuse and abuse by authorities, raising concerns about civil liberties and invasion of privacy.

There are numerous problems with the use of ALPR, starting with the fact that their use distracts police officers from more productive use of their time, such as investigating crimes against persons or property instead of trolling parking lots and city streets. Community policing and alert vigilance by officers are far better ways to reduce crime and find stolen vehicles.

There is also the simple problem of economics: these automatic readers cost $4,000-$10,000 each. Those resources could be much better invested in more pressing needs. Even though some agencies receive them gratis through federal grants, it ultimately is taxpayer money being spent on expensive toys with questionable utility.

If the New Hampshire Legislature is seriously concerned about "jobs and the economy," it should dispatch all requests for such frivolous spending. LPRs will not improve the economy or increase the number of productive jobs in this state. Given the concern people have about the rapidly increasing size and cost of government, the priority should be to invest limited public funds in improving opportunities for people by creating a healthier job climate and maintaining infrastructure.

There are many problems with collection and storage of data mined by ALPR. In fact, the Boston Police Department (BPD) recently stopped its use of license plate readers following an investigation into their use by the investigative journalism organization MuckRock and the Boston Globe. It has been shown that there is no way to guarantee that the data will not be misused or improperly stored. Further, the databases against which readers match plate numbers come from all 50 states and the federal government, so it is impossible for our state authorities to verify the accuracy of that data.

Use of the readers will lead to wide inconvenience to New Hampshire motorists. Because a match by the system will alert an officer to the vehicle without reference to the driver, there will be a large increase in people being improperly stopped and interrogated. Imagine if you were the innocent spouse or daughter or elderly father of somebody with too many unpaid parking tickets being pulled over, delayed and questioned, even though you had nothing to do with the underlying reason for the stop. This is a clear violation of civil liberties.

The American Civil Liberties Union has come out against ALPR in a number of position papers. One major concern with the readers, the ACLU said, is that the scans could be used by police to track innocent people, or target groups based on their ethnic background or political beliefs. The system could be used to target personal foes or others who criticize local officials.

Many folks question the constitutionality of these broad-brush, dragnet-style license plate searches. The question of whether mass surveillance without a warrant is constitutional is presently working its way through federal courts and is expected at the U.S. Supreme Court within a year or two. Federal judges have recently disagreed on the issue with respect to warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency and other government agencies.

People have a right to travel freely without being monitored and surveilled by the state. Wholesale tracking of residents' movements is wholly offensive in a free society. It's time to push back against Big Brother and stand up for the freedoms that have so long been cherished in this state. If we are to slow the inexorable march towards an Orwellian future, people must speak out and be heard. Our silence will only be interpreted as slavish acquiescence by those who thirst for power and control.

Mark Warden is a Republican state representative from Goffstown who serves on the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

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