The DEA wants to set up some cameras in Utah that will provide a level of supervision over major highways that outraged most people during a relatively brief test of the system in Massachusetts last year.
The DEA wants to install an Automated License Plate Recognition System (ALPRS) along Interstate 15 in Southwest Utah, which it calls a major drug corridor.
The systems the DEA proposed using in meetings with Utah legislators and law enforcement are designed to scan the license plate of every passing car, use OCR to identify the characters and links ot state driver databases to identify the owner.
The goal is to keep track of frequent travelers along the highway between on perch in Beaver County, along Utah's Western border, and another in Washington County, in the state's far southwestern corner.
One would read southbound plates; the other would read northbound plates, according to the DEA, capturing the license-plate number, GPS coordinates and direction of travel.
If it recognized a plate other police agencies asked about, or put an alert on, the ALPRS system could text or email an alert right away.
The data would be cross-referenced with address data, police records, warrant information and other available data. Police with access to any of the collected by the ALPRS would have access to all the associated identifying data as well.
"I can assure you there is no private information stored in association with these plates," according to Gary Newcomb, a supervisory IT specialist from the DEA, who testified before the Utah legislature to fill them in on the proposal.
"I can have a deputy sit out there [on I-15] all day long and write down license plates and we still have to follow the exact same procedure" for investigating suspects, according to Beaver County Sheriff Cameron Noel.
That's true; they could. But a deputy wouldn't photograph every single plate, OCR every single picture or build a database chronicling every trip by every single vehicle, whether driven by felons or nuns, up and down the western-Utah border.
Police and the DEA are full of assurances the technology and ability it represents won't do any damage to the privacy of Utah residents or violate any major rules. The data would only be used if the plate is recognized or if there were an incident involving a car that had been photographed – an accident or murder, for example.
Unfortunately, the whole design, from start to finish, of ALPRs is unconstitutional. By photographing, recording and identifying every license plate as it goes by Utah's police agencies would be doing the equivalent of a daily strip search of every resident in every car that passes by.
Giving police open access to the information – which nearly every similar database has proven will be used for abuse of the privelege– is equivalent to allowing them to search ever car and driver, or at least pull them over to ask for a license.
Only if they have due cause to believe a driver is up to something can cops in the U.S. stop and search a car – or even photograph it, profile the driver and file the results.
Checking every single car as it goes by is more efficient than picking and choosing, once you set up the system.
But checking every person, car bicycle, horse, donkey, mule or ass who walks by, even if some of them are hardened criminals who are an unquestioned threat to the people of the state, is not the way to do it. Not the legal way.
So far, however, the most cogent argument against it came from Utah Senate President Michael Waddoups, who seems to sense there is a real problem in the kill-them-all-let-God-sort-them-out approach to search and seizure, but doesn't quite get what it is:
"It’s not against the law to drive down I-15 from Utah to Nevada to gamble, "Waddoups said in objecting to the exposure of citizens and violations of privacy that are certain to happen under the new system. " but there are a lot of Utahns that would be pretty embarrassed by that."
Could be, Mr. Senate President. Could be.
Not embarrassing your constituents is a good decision for a politician; telling federal agencies 'No' when they ask to decertify part of the Constitution in one corner of your state is better.
This idea should go back in the DEA's little medical bag of tricks to wait for a time when the Constitution is no longer relevant, or when everyone in Utah, Massachusetts and every other state are so upstanding they could never be embarrassed, never caught in flagrante and never, never need to exercise their right not to be searched and seized in public for no reason other than that people they don't know sometimes smuggle drugs down the same road.
Not a good enough excuse to consider everyone a bad apple, DEA; go back to the drawing board and try again. On the plan, not the rationalizations. Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.