Called it! Eleven Years Ago

What is this blog for, if not to let Cato scholars call out what smarty-pantses they are?

The Wall Street Journal reports on automobile license plates as the “new tracking frontier.”

For more than two years, the police in San Leandro, Calif., photographed Mike Katz-Lacabe’s Toyota Tercel almost weekly. They have shots of it cruising along Estudillo Avenue near the library, parked at his friend’s house and near a coffee shop he likes. In one case, they snapped a photo of him and his two daughters getting out of a car in his driveway. Mr. Katz-Lacabe isn’t charged with, or suspected of, any crime. Local police are tracking his vehicle automatically, using cameras mounted on a patrol car that record every nearby vehicle—license plate, time and location.

I didn’t have every detail, of course, but 11 years ago I noted the coming problem of license-plate tracking in testimony to a House Transportation subcommittee.

It was a little odd at the time, and still is, to talk about the privacy problem with license plates. But the emerging technology environment makes it essential to analyze and assess more carefully the information and identification demands that the government places on us.

[T]he requirement in all fifty states that cars must exhibit license plates linked to their owners is “anti-privacy” law, as would be a law requiring people to wear name tags in order to walk on public sidewalks. Mandatory license plates prevent citizens from exhibiting the expectation of privacy that Justice Harlan wrote about in Katz. Roughly speaking, they require people to expose their identities to police as a condition of driving on our roadways.

I expanded on “anti-privacy” law in my 2004 Cato Policy Analysis, “Understanding Privacy—and the Real Threats To It.”

We’re still grappling with the problem of privacy “in public.” The Supreme Court’s decision on GPS tracking in the Jones case is the most significant recent iteration of that. (Cato brief and related blog post; pre-decision posts: 1, 2, 3; post-decision posts: 4, 5, 6.) The latest Cato Supreme Court Review (also available digitally) includes an article of mine on the case. My latest thinking on Fourth Amendment privacy can by found in Cato’s brief in Florida v. Jardines.

It is possible to think systematically about privacy. Privacy is not just a morass of feelings about advancing technologies. Once one understands privacy (in its strongest sense) as the exercise of power to control information about oneself, one can see a decade ahead that license plates create privacy problems.

Pretty smart, huh? Yeah.