Ubiquitous Police Surveillance and Guilt by Location

The Times Colonist has a particularly good opinion piece concerning authorities’ use of automatic license plate recognition. This technology was recently subject of an investigation in British Columbia, with the provincial information and privacy commissioner asserting that many of the current uses of the technology must stop. For more information, you can read the decision  (.pdf) or some press coverage about the decision.

When speaking about authorities’ interests in retaining locational information about people who aren’t immediately of interest to police, the author of the opinion piece writes:

And the concept [of collecting such information] goes against the golden thread that winds its way throughout our justice system – the presumption of innocence unless proven otherwise. A person shouldn’t become the focus of an investigation just because he or she happened to drive along a certain street at a certain time.

But a person who hasn’t done anything wrong shouldn’t worry, right? Ask that to people whose lives have been ruined when they have been investigated or charged for a crime and later exonerated. That stigma of being the target of a police investigation is not easily erased, even when a person is cleared of all wrongdoing.

This latter paragraph – that the stigma of a false investigation can significantly alter a person’s life possibilities for an extensive period of time – is often forgotten about or glossed over when reporting on new policing surveillance practices. In an era where information is in abundance, and the attention span to monitor stories and issues is at a premium, a false charge may be legally overturned without the population more generally ever correcting their false impressions. This can create a long-standing disadvantage for falsely accused person as they try to carry on with their lives.

Moreover, the very potential that information could be used against you turns the (popular) understanding of guilt on its head: instead of authorities clearly linking a person’s presence at a location with a crime, it becomes the responsibility of each individual to demonstrate the innocence of being in place X at time Y. Given that these license plate scanners can capture where people are, at any time of the day, there isn’t a necessary reason that a person will know why they were at X at Y. While such oversights ought to be understood as the reasonable failings of a reasonable human’s mind, the danger is that an inability to justify one’s presence at a particular place could be taken as an indication of potential guilt. As a result of such ‘suspicious’ behaviour an individual who was just driving at the ‘wrong place’ at the ‘wrong time’ could be subjected to more intrusive police surveillance, simply because a scanner identified a person at a particular place at a particular time.

Fortunately, the privacy commissioner has significantly come out against this ubiquitous form of surveillance. Her stance should limit these dystopian risks of license plate scanners in her jurisdiction. Now it’s up to the authorities to respect the decision and mediate how and why they use the technology.