Eye in the Sky

Man, I really hate being right all the time! Just last June I made the hypothetical assertion that in the not too distant future the government would be spying on our driving habits from the sky, “… drones so high in the sky you won’t even know they are there…will allow the government to decide if your car should be allowed on certain roads at certain times” (full comment here). Although the latter part of my prediction (using that information to restrict our movements) has not come to pass (yet), the former nearly did just begin. It was reported recently that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) ordered (and then cancelled after massive public outcry) a plan to implement a national license plate tracking system. Yes, you read that correctly. National license plate tracking. Hello – this is George Orwell, he’d like his book “1984” back, he’s tired of those in charge using it as a guide rather than a warning.

This plan was initiated by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency (a division of DHS) and was only made public because the agency (fortunately) does not have the ability to accomplish this on their own, therefore they put out requests for proposals from private companies. Apparently they were hoping such a system would help them track down fugitive illegal immigrants. Yes, clearly the immigrants we really want to deport are the ones that have come to this country and earned enough that they can actually afford an automobile. Those guys are just parasites on the system.

But, this is not something new. License plate reading is already going on across the country. Law enforcement uses it now to track down specific suspects. Presumably any information about non-targets is discarded in short order (one would hope). But even if it is not quickly discarded, the limited size of most jurisdictions constrains the degree of privacy loss to be no greater than if a few of your friends saw you driving about. The real danger, however, comes from federalizing all of these systems and assembling them into one all encompassing nationwide tracking web (Matrix?) that can determine precisely where each of us has been. Fortunately the plans were cancelled, however that does little to assuage fears that ultimately this will one day be a reality.

What did those in power learn? Don’t be dumb enough to publicize requests to spy on your citizens. Next time they will build their own solutions and we will have no way of knowing anything about them. Although the proposed system did not employ drones (as I predicted) the intended result was the same as my prediction: track people’s movement in their car. In the end though it is likely that drones will be the preferred tracking method. Our government already uses them extensively and could deploy them now with little fanfare. This fact, when coupled with a new NHTS rule that requires “black boxes” in all new cars by September 2014, could mean in the not too distant future that “upgrades” to these boxes in combination with drones built to track the unique signature of each black box will mean the government could have access to live, real time movement data of everyone on the road. Farfetched? Well, time will tell. But ten years ago who would have believed that our government would one day be tracking us on line, reading our e-mails, recording our phone calls, or spying on us through our webcams. The combination of technology and government’s insatiable desire to control the citizenry make such predictions all too easy.