America wouldn’t be America without a deep distrust of government, and perhaps it is impossible to go too far in defense of privacy.
Only under threat of great peril — say, in airport security lines — do we abandon that principle. Otherwise officialdom can keep its nose out of our stuff.
If that admirable instinct has a downside, it is that a sense of proportion will sometimes desert us. We are so scared of Big Brother that we fancy he is everywhere. Thus, for instance, a plan to install computerized license-plate readers in police cars was killed by a House committee last week after being denounced as an attempt to gather and stockpile data that drivers would rather keep confidential.
The Libertarians were out in force and high dudgeon to urge defeat of the bill authorizing the cameras that would help nab uninsured motorists, car thieves and other wanted felons. In order to achieve that highly desirable goal, the cameras would take pictures of all the license plates in view.
Those pictures would then be dispatched to a “central database” — there’s a phrase to send chills down the spine — so fugitives from the law could be pulled over. The numbers also would be matched against insurance records and citations mailed to drivers not shown as covered. Pictures of vehicles registered to such upstanding citizens as you and me would be destroyed within 60 days.
Driving uninsured is a criminal offense, but 15 percent of the cars on Louisiana roads are not covered, according to proponents of the bill. Since the scofflaws drive up premiums for the rest of us, getting them off the road should be a popular cause.
But license-plate recognition cameras are too high a price to pay, according to opponents of the bill, which one called “crony capitalist” and “anti-privacy.”
Cameras would only capture the plates and not the occupants of the vehicle, proponents of the bill pointed out, so no deep secrets would be at risk. Besides, the right to privacy can have only limited applications to what is done in plain view on a public street.
Cameras or no cameras, cops can run license plates and finger offenders. Automatic recognition would only speed up the process and make it more efficient. Presumably, it would mean fewer uninsured drivers and fewer felons at large. Fear of snooping proved too strong, however.
As for the crony capitalism charge, it is true that the impetus for the bill came from a private company that proposed to install the cameras in return for 30 percent of the $200 fines to be collected from uninsured drivers.
Certainly, as opponents of the bill argued, the state would be better off running the show itself. The technology required is pretty much old hat.
The problem is, of course, that the state lacks the requisite upfront cash. If we wanted the cameras, we would have to cut in private investors. But we don’t want them on those or, maybe, any other terms.
Cameras set up at red lights are typically resented as an invasion of privacy too. Among their detractors is Sen. Ronnie Johns, R.-Lake Charles, author of the license-plate bill, who rejects any comparison, although the similarities are blindingly obvious. Indeed, red-light cameras are the less intrusive because you can avoid activating one through the simple expedient of not breaking the law.
Meanwhile, although we are happy for the TSA to examine our luggage at the airport, we still can’t get a driver’s license that will serve as an ID to let us board a plane when new federal regulations go into effect. Those regulations will not require any more information than is already on a passport, and legislation has been proposed that would let us, but not force us, to apply for a compliant license.
So far such legislation has gotten nowhere because even offering the option is seen as the first step toward dystopia.
The eternal vigilance that is the price of liberty is bound to shade into paranoia occasionally.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.