What’s public for me is private for thee. At least that’s what Monroe County, N.Y. believes when it comes to where you drive your car.
Monroe police have been using high-speed cameras to capture license plates in order to log vehicle whereabouts. As of July, the County’s database contained 3.7 million records, with the capability to add thousands more each day. The justification for cops having records of the whereabouts of law-abiding citizens is that the vehicles are driven in public and therefore drivers have no expectation of privacy. It’s an argument that’s at odds with the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in U.S. v. Jones. In Jones, a GPS tracking case, the court held that individuals do have an expectation of privacy when it comes to their long-term whereabouts, even when using public roads.
If cops are determined to violate this privacy, then at least they could behave more consistently. Last summer, Rochester, N.Y.’s Democrat & Chronicle filed a state open records request — more commonly called a FOIL (for Freedom Of Information Law) — for information on seven of its reporter’s license plates as well as two city and county government vehicles. After all, if such information is public when collected, why would it change merely because it’s sitting in a database?
Yet, the request was denied on the basis that releasing the data could be an invasion of personal privacy or could interfere with a law enforcement investigation. I’m skeptical of these arguments for a couple reasons. First, the reporters consented for the information to be released and the government cars belong to the public, so there is no privacy interest here. Second, the cameras are unrelated to any particular investigation. While it’s certainly possible to imagine a scenario where a criminal plots his entire movements to avoid the cameras, it feels a bit outlandish and it’s hard to see how that meaningfully compromises the cops’ ability to catch crooks.
The newspaper is now asking a judge to overrule the County and release the records. Ultimately, if police are going to possess such technology, they are going to have to meaningfully engage the public to find ways to adequately preserve privacy. Until they do so, what’s good for the goose should be good for the gander.
Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty