License Plate Scanners Know Where You Are

Big Data continues its inexorable march towards a creepy world without privacy. Forbes reports on companies that sell location data based on license plate recognition:

“People are afraid of the government collecting phone records from Verizon and the government’s response was you don’t understand we’re not really spying on you, it’s metadata,” said Scott Jackson, MVTRAC’s founder and CEO. “People don’t understand what metadata is. It’s abstract data that is just sitting there and it has no meaning whatsoever until […] you can take that plate and you can reach into the metadata that up to then had no meaning whatsoever, and the next thing you know you can interpolate various patterns of movement.”

Note that these data can be gathered anonymously and without a warrant, since these cameras are placed in public locations. I mentioned a similar scenario a few posts ago (apologies for quoting myself):

It’s currently OK to take pictures in public places – that makes sense, because you’re already in public where everyone can see you. But what if every private building and every car had cameras on it, scanning everyone who walks by and cataloging their movements with facial recognition technology?

These are disturbing problems that arise when technology pushes “common-sense” laws to their limits. Surveillance cameras are normal and acceptable, but the beast that emerges when you network them together is unsettling. It’s interesting to see how new business models take shape within that new ecosystem as technology destroys jobs elsewhere, but these new industries can be disruptive to social practices that we’ve taken for granted.

These trends will become exponentially more visible as the “internet of things” becomes a reality, and we will need to carefully weigh their convenience against the concurrent loss of privacy.