Data Retention Dilemma

Regarding the editorial piece in the Richmond Times Dispatch adapted from The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star published 12/4/2020

Editorial: Expunge law-abiding Virginians’ tag numbers

“By subjecting Americans to surveillance without their knowledge or compliance and then storing the data for later use, the government has erected the ultimate suspect society. In such an environment, there is no such thing as ‘innocent until proven guilty.'”

John Whitehead, Rutherford Institute

Applying Mr. Whitehead’s quote to this topic is a significant overreach as are the positions asserted in the editorial piece referenced above regarding automated License Plate Reader (ALPR) data collection by law enforcement authorities.

The fact that data anonymously collected about a vehicle potentially associated with criminal activity, or owned or operated by a person wanted in connection with criminal activity, is just another valuable asset of criminal justice.  How is this different than DNA?  DNA evidence, often heralded as a breakthrough innovation in law enforcement and is frequently forcibly provided, is held in perpetuity.  In the referenced ALPR case, the data is destroyed after one year.  That means that that data collected one year ago is destroyed today and every day. 

Comparatively, far more in-depth information about where you and I go and what we do is collected second by second of every single minute of every single day by a myriad of applications on our personal devices.  Where we go, at what time, for how long, what we drive, what we purchase, who we associate with and even what we say, all is constantly collected.  Then it is analyzed for its usefulness in targeting us specifically with custom messages as well as setting macro-level marketing strategy.  All provided freely because we value the services provided by the applications that require it of us more than we do our privacy, and, because we are too lazy to read the Ts and Cs.  If anyone would take the time to read just one, and could comprehend its implications, would be outraged.  All of our very private information is retained forever and sold to all those willing to pay thus multiplying exponentially the number of places this data is held.  Now that should outrage and frighten everyone!

Where is the outrage about these invasions of privacy?  These forever collections of very private information are vastly more threatening than the information collected by a police vehicle we may never encounter or who we serendipitously pass on a rare occasion.    In fact, the data collected by applications is far more likely to directly expose us to criminal activity from identity theft to sexual predators.  Law enforcement authorities do not care about where you and I go.  The ALPR data potentially collected about us will likely never be accessed and will be destroyed in 12 months.

Law enforcement has an incredibly difficult role in society balancing effective crime fighting with crime prevention all while strictly adhering to the law in protecting citizens constitutional rights.  ALPR is an innovative crime fighting aid where only vehicles associated with criminal activity or criminals are affected.  To deny these dedicated professionals an extremely targeted and effective crime fighting tool would only serve to discourage further innovation while giving criminals a free hand to victimize us.

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