New York’s Robot Police Cameras Leave No Hiding Place for Terrorists, Criminals, People With Faulty DMV Paperwork

The New York Times reported today on a powerful crime-fighting tool being used by the New York Police Department: total information awareness of where automobiles go on city streets, by their

license plate numbers


Thanks to a network of 108 fixed cameras and 130 cameras mounted on squad cars, the NYPD is able to keep a centralized record of the movements of individual cars throughout the city. This system was meant to protect New York from the horrors of terrorism, originally:

Though the imaging technology was conceived primarily as a counterterrorism tool, the cameras’ presence — all those sets of watchful eyes that never seem to blink — has aided in all sorts of traditional criminal investigations

Terrorism doesn’t happen all that often, right? So it would be a waste to have this surveillance equipment sitting around doing nothing with all the license plate numbers it reads. The Times cited multiple manhunts where the cameras helped police find people they might not have found, or might not have found quite so soon.

But manhunts don’t happen all the time either. On inspection, the Times story only had three examples in the past two years. So…

The cameras have provided clues in homicide cases and other serious crimes. But they have been used in lesser offenses, too. With them, stolen cars have been identified, located and returned. The cameras have uncovered unregistered vehicles and those with stolen license plates.

Unregistered vehicles. There is a citywide automated automobile-tracking system in place to catch unregistered vehicles.

The Times quoted Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, asking about the “values of privacy and freedom.”

“We don’t know how much information is being recorded and kept, for how long, and by which cameras,” Ms. Lieberman said. “It’s one thing to have information about cars that are stopped for suspicious activity, but it’s something else to basically maintain a permanent database of where particular cars go when there is nothing happening that is wrong and there is no basis for suspicion.”

Hey, look, the law says you have to register your car. People with unregistered cars are illegal. They are doing something illegal right out there on the street, where the cameras can see them. If you’re not doing anything illegal, what do you have to be private about? Would anyone complain if the NYPD simply had a policeman on every corner, writing down and checking the license plate number of every car that passed? (Would anyone?)