License Plate Cameras: Easy Tool for Political Harassment

Nov 24, 2009
Nicole A. Ozer

Page Media

ACLU of Northern CA

On Wednesday, November 18 the Tiburon, California Town Council approved a license-plate camera surveillance system that will keep track of every vehicle that enters and leaves the city. These cameras are expensive: The system carries an initial price tag of between $137,000 and $196,000, with an additional $15,000 yearly maintenance fee.

There is no evidence that they will do anything to make the Tiburon community safer. Studies from as far away as London and as close as San Francisco have shown that cameras do not produce the desired results.

There are cheaper, less intrusive and more effective solutions. Improved lighting has been found to reduce all crime, including violent crime, an average of 20%. Better street lighting may not be as sexy as high tech camera surveillance, but it is more effective at reducing crime and it's a lot cheaper than putting up expensive cameras. Plus, light bulbs don't spy on people or discriminate.

The use of license plate cameras to spy and discriminate is not paranoid speculation. It turns out that this is just what police in London have been using their license plate cameras to do. The license plate cameras that were originally installed around Britain to enforce parking, driving and congestion violations are now being used to harass peaceful protestors. Police are using the system to flag nonviolent activists and then repeatedly pull them over and search their cars.

This is a prime example of how camera surveillance systems passed for one purpose, say finding stolen cars (which is Tiburon's stated intent), can end up being used for spying and discrimination down the line. The United States has its own history of misusing surveillance powers to target peaceful political protestors and activists. Visit the ACLU of Northern California's Tracked in America project to listen to some of the first-hand stories of surveillance from the present day, like George Main, a veteran who engaged in peaceful anti-war protests and was questioned by the F.B.I.

Once these cameras go up in Tiburon it will be very hard to make sure that the camera system does not end up being misused. Community members in Tiburon should think hard about the real price of these cameras and have the City Council reconsider this ill-fated plan.