a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

How not to pay for a transportation system

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 23rd February 2009

The Washington Post’s lead editorial today is “Mr. Lahood’s Good Idea” — a followup to last week’s news that Transportation Secretary Lahood discussed a “mileage tax” in an AP interview as a new means of paying for the country’s transportation system. The Obama administration rather firmly shot down the idea: “It is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said when asked at his daily briefing about LaHood’s remarks, which were made in an interview with the Associated Press.

The Post’s editorial board is concerned that the Obama administration was too hasty:

As automobiles become more efficient and make use of new fuels, the gas tax — which, we note here for the umpteenth time, should be raised — will be less effective in capturing revenue. Mr. LaHood’s comments reflected what many transportation experts and economists are coming to believe: A tax on vehicle miles traveled, or VMTs, is the most promising, fairest, most environmentally responsible replacement for the gas tax.

It’s hard to figure how any replacement of a gasoline tax would be environmentally responsible, but a tax on VMT — the same whether you’re driving a Hummer or a smart car — would be among the least attractive options, it seems to me.  It’s also par for the Post in disingenuousness to “note for the umpteenth time” that gas taxes should be raised …when Lahood himself ruled that out in the very same interview.  You’d think that might have been their topic du jour if they actually gave a hoot.

But for me, the real kicker is how the tax could be levied:

Most proposals require a GPS-like “mileage-counter” to be installed in vehicles. When drivers stop to fill up, a tax based on the miles they’ve driven would be added to their bill in place of a gas tax. The tax rate could be adjusted based on whether someone was driving in rush hour or off-peak times, on clogged freeways or less busy roads.  […]

Some opponents fear that the government could use the mileage counters to monitor drivers.

As Dr. Watson is rumored to have said from time to time: no sh*t, Sherlock. Lahood and the Post’s brain wave is based on a 2007 feasibility study done in Oregon at the behest of Democratic governor Ted Kulongoski.  The point of the GPS system (as opposed to just reading the car’s odometer in some fashion) is mainly to help tell vehicle miles traveled in Oregon from those traveled elsewhere, but determining the particular roads traveled (for rate adjustment purposes) could be determined with the same technology.

Now it appears to be true that the on-board device designed for the purpose really only stores the “Oregon miles traveled.”  But no self-respecting surveillance system would focus at that end of the transaction anyway.  As the Seattle Times’s Eric Pryne reported in 2004:

Such assurances don’t satisfy David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. Oregon’s prototype probably presents little threat to privacy, he says — but government officials almost certainly would want something more. The state would need a record of a car’s movements to document the mileage-tax assessment if someone contested it, Sobel says: “Just from a due-process perspective, there will be pressure to retain data.

And thanks to our ever expanding views of what the federal government is entitled to secretly acquire and peruse, those data might as well then be emailed directly to the Department of Homeland Security or the FBI, to be easily matched up with credit card, financial, DMV, and/or any other data these agencies get their hands on for whatever flimsy reason.

Is there a problem to be solved?  Sure; even if you’re a vigorous advocate of mass transit, you may well agree that we have to keep a lot of major, existing roads in good repair — and apparently the federal Highway Trust Fund piggy bank for that is running dry.  But if so, there are a number of non-surveillance based solutions: increase the tax base for the fund, stop building new roads and think hard about which existing ones to prioritize, access other taxes, or — I’ve got it! — set up something I’m going to call “toll booths”, an admittedly science-fictiony idea where people would stop and pay for the wear and tear they cause to the road they’re on.

The more I look around, the more keeping up with the million and three nitwit creeping surveillance ideas out there is looking like a full time job.   One advantage I’ll have, though, is that the Washington Post’s editorial board is sure to be touting the craziest ones in lead editorials.

EDIT, 2/26: “you may well agree” for the presumptuous “if you’re honest with yourself you know”

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“It happens every day”: DHS supplied e-mails to MD State Police

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 20th February 2009

I guess I thought this would get a little more attention than it has.  On Tuesday, the Washington Post’s Lisa Rein reported:

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security tracked the protest plans of a peaceful Washington area antiwar group and passed the information to the Maryland State Police, which had previously labeled the activists as terrorists in an intelligence file. The federal agency obtained two e-mails containing plans for upcoming demonstrations at a military recruiting center in Silver Spring in 2005, the first indication that DHS might have worked with the police to monitor advocacy groups.

While a DHS spokesman claimed the communications were “taken off the Internet,” that is disputed by Pat Elder, a leader of the group involved (the now dissolved DC Anti-War Network, or DAWN):

“They would have had to join our group as a member,” said Pat Elder of Bethesda, the leader of a national network that opposes military recruitment in high schools. He said he was in contact in 2005 with an activist in Atlanta about how to build the cardboard coffins frequently used by protesters against the Iraq war as a symbol of what activists have called needless military deaths.

The e-mails were forwarded to the Maryland State Police from a DHS office in Atlanta.

Nice database work!
It’s interesting how well coordinated the passage of information was.  It’s as if… as if… why, it’s as if there was some kind of federal database that would enable far-flung agencies to be aware of a mutual interest in a given “terrorist” like Mr. Elder once he was entered in the system.

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Six questions about license plate scanners

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 16th February 2009

On the neighborhood listserv, a DC police officer wrote in with factual information about how he uses a scanner in his work.  As I wrote him,

Thanks very much, [sir], for describing how the scanner / tag reader works: plates encountered by your car’s tag reader are compared to an onboard database of wanted license plates. It’s also good to know that matches are double-checked in the way you describe. Takoma Park police should no doubt do as DC police do in those respects if the city authorizes the system.

But your explanation doesn’t address some of the key civil liberties issues. Among the big questions (for me, at least) are:

(1) whether the system is always on or whether you turn it on only when you suspect a car is stolen,
(2) what happens with the images of unmatched license plates — likely 99.9% of the plates the tag reader encounters each day,
(3) recourse to the court system to safeguard against abuse,
(4) where do the lists of suspect vehicles come from — it’s not always just stolen cars,
(5) can bad guys trick the scanner, and what consequences does that have for the real value of the system, and
(6) what alternatives were considered and how the decision process should have worked.

I take up each of these questions below.

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TPPD license plate scanner

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 13th February 2009

You had to live – did live, from
habit that became instinct – in
the assumption that every sound
you made was overheard, and,
except in darkness, every
movement scrutinised.

— “1984”, George Orwell

Suppose that the local police in
a particular jurisdiction were to
decide to station a police car at the
entrance to the parking lot of a
well patronized bar from 5:30 p.m.
to 7:30 p.m. every business day for
the purpose of making a list of the
license plates of cars that were
driven in and parked in the lot
during that time… I would guess
that the great majority of people
who might have the question
posed to them would say that
this is not a proper police

— William Rehnquist, 1974

They who can give up essential
liberty to obtain a little temporary
safety, deserve neither liberty
nor safety.

— Benjamin Franklin

This page is a resource page about the proposed acquisition of a license plate scanner system by the Takoma Park Police Department.  I believe there are substantive civil liberties concerns with these systems.

Takoma Park

Civil liberties, civil rights, privacy

Relevant law

Articles, opinions


  • Manufacturers: PlateScan (motto: “The License Plate is just the Beginning”), ELSAG
  • Automatic number plate recognition (Wikipedia)*
  • Evidence for counterfeit or stolen plates as car theft strategy and way of defeating scanners: UK Home Office Consultation Document, undated, response deadline 12/8/2008: “As regards misrepresentation of vehicle registration marks, we understand from the police that there has been a steady increase in the numbers using illegal number plates. Breaches of the legislation include altering the layout of letters and numerals, illegal fonts and the use of tape to change the appearance of the plate. This has significant implications for criminal investigations and crime detection, eg by Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) systems and automatic speed detection devices.” See also WSJ, BBC (via), CBS; more generally, vehicle cloning report by Natl. Insurance Crime Bureau.

* Common acronyms for these systems include ANPR (automatic number plate recognition), ALPR, LPR, (license plate), and AVI (vehicle identification).
** DPPA and MD 10-616 are mainly relevant to invasions of privacy by non-law enforcement persons — but both disprove the widespread notion that there is no expectation of privacy for license plate information.

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Takoma Park PD license plate scanner: grant application

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 11th February 2009

At my request, the city sent me a copy of the license plate scanner grant application made by the Takoma Park Police Department.  The application, made to the Maryland Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention (GOCCP), can be seen below.

TPPD license plate recognition scanner grant application (click expansion icon at upper right for better view)

In the following, I make a few comments about the application. While I have criticisms, I don’t want readers to think I’m imputing bad motives or bad faith to the Takoma Park Police Department. The goal of recovering stolen cars is sensible, of course. But as written, the application goes beyond that in some ways, and makes no provision for civil liberties concerns or procedures.
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Of searches, seizures, the society we want, and the rights we have regardless

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 11th February 2009

Another point of view about license plate scanners, followed by my response.

You’re going to have to come up with something better than the Fourth Amendment if you want the Constitution to support your position. Unreasonable search and seizure? I’m sure you’re not referring to “seizure” so “search” must be the issue. You want to try to craft a definition of “search” that fits here? I can’t.


From my perspective, the license plate scanner issue is one of surveillance and data protection.  Those issues are not just about what is and is not narrowly permissible to the police and the state, but about what our rights should be. Those rights were not exhaustively described by the Constitution or the Bill of Rights — how could they have been, by people who had no inkling of computers, video surveillance, GPS systems, etc.

I believe that the plain spirit of the Fourth Amendment and the Bill of Rights supports my view that license plate scanners represent an unreasonable search or seizure of information.

But whether I’m right about that or not, we still have the right to choose a less-surveilled, less abuse-prone society over a more heavily surveilled one. We can decide what kind of community we want. And I should think the burden ought to be on those who want more surveillance, not those who want less of it.

I’m not a legal expert (obviously, many will snort). I just try to reason out how my fundamental rights are or are not protected by what I see happening. I understand the counterarguments — you won’t need to repeat them — but the “search” or “seizure” of my “effects” that I see happening takes place at the time my license plate identification is compared to a database, for no reason other than that a squad car rolled past my car. (I use both words only because while it seems more like a “search” to me, some legally trained people I’ve talked to say it’s perhaps more of a “seizure”.)

But even if license plate scanning is permissible under the 4th amendment, as narrowly understood and adjudicated today, I’m more concerned with the anti-surveillance spirit that caused that amendment to be written. We fought a revolution once, among other things to be rid of unwarranted intrusions and chilling oversight, to be able to stand up and say we’re a free people, secure in the knowledge that we control and monitor our police and our government, not the other way around.

I like that spirit better than one seeking to justify “security” measures of little value. I hold out hope that we’ll either reject this particular security measure, or very, very strongly regulate its use.

EDIT, 9/22/10: ‘that amendment’ for ‘them’.

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It simply isn’t that simple

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 11th February 2009

I’ve mentioned the listserv discussions I’ve been a part of on the Takoma Park license plate scanner issue. Here’s the nub of another point of view, followed by my response; while some of the response is similar to the points in a previous post, enough of it isn’t to warrant a post of its own.  A listserv member wrote:

The Fourth Amendment clearly does not bar the police from observing what is in plain sight in public places — for instance, automobile license plates. You shouldn’t have to consult a constitutional scholar to understand that. Common sense and the ability to comprehend plain written English are all you need.


It simply isn’t that simple, in my opinion. I have no problem with a single policeman writing down a license plate of a car he thinks is ‘hinky’ for some reason, and seeing if it comes up as a stolen car or whatever. But the operative phrase in the prior sentence is ‘for some reason’, just as ‘unreasonable’ is in the 4th Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

There’s the plain written English for you. If 30 or 300 years from now a robot computer system comes along that replicates that policeman’s “hmm… that’s odd… I think I’ll look up that license plate” reasoning process, I might be more willing to consider it. But that’s not what this is; it’s almost literally the opposite of “reasonable” — multiplied by potentially thousands of plates a day — since it isn’t *reasoned* at all. And that seems like common sense to *me*.

But you’re right, we don’t need to try to be legal experts — in that we don’t have to settle for what merely “gets by” legally. We can ask ourselves, “is this really the kind of community we want?” License plate scanners? With all due respect to the 2007 Council — tasers? What’s next — the latest SWAT gear? armored personnel carriers? (Don’t laugh, it happens.*) Some of these are obviously water under the bridge. But cumulatively this seems to me to be heading the wrong way, away from the Takoma Park I want.

* Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America, Radley Balko.

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“The License Plate is Just the Beginning”

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 28th January 2009

Last night the Takoma Park City Council took up the proposed license plate scanner system that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. A video of the meeting can be viewed via this link (Windows Media player required); the worksession begins around the 52:20 minute mark.  A 2-page briefing (.PDF) can be seen here.

While civil liberties concerns were expressed, I mainly sensed a desire not to disagree very much with the plan.  It seemed to me councilmembers were still coming to grips with the issue, let alone opposing, reining in, or even closely questioning the police about the device — or they might have called other witnesses and experts: perhaps the city attorney, perhaps any of a number of other lawyers the town boasts.

After the meeting, I talked with several of the police officials. Captain Coursey — the officer who wrote the grant proposal for the device — told me that the systems he was looking at included PlateScan (slogan: “The License Plate is Just the Beginning” ) and ELSAG, maker of the “Mobile Plate Hunter 900“, which brags that “after-action analysis” of license plate data can lead to, among other things, “watch list development” and “pattern recognition.”

What was frustrating to me was that a number of assertions were made during the meeting, or emerged after the meeting, that deserved clear rejoinders but didn’t get them.  Herewith some of those assertions and my own rejoinders:

  • License plates are public knowledge; people can pay a business like this one a few bucks and find out who owns a given license plate.

Answer: I don’t like that people can buy such information either.  But at any rate, I expect more of our police department, and what it or other agencies could do with the information is of even more concern to me than what some snoopy private citizen might do.  Moreover, as a citizen, I can hope to do more about it.

  • With this system, there are no “pings” of another agency’s database — all the queries are done against downloaded data.

Answer: That is undeniably a good thing, and at least the PlateScan and ELSAG systems do appear to do checks against downloaded data, rather than sending data elsewhere to be checked and stored.  But notice also that in the past, those “pings” were (or ought to have been) based on some policeman’s or policewoman’s suspicion about a car — it matched a description she’d heard, something about the driving behavior was off.  Now it’s simply wholesale surveillance.

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The reviews are in…

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 16th January 2009

Playmobil Security Checkpoint…for Playmobil Security Check Point:

  • “I was a little disappointed when I first bought this item, because the functionality is limited. My 5 year old son pointed out that the passenger’s shoes cannot be removed. Then, we placed a deadly fingernail file underneath the passenger’s scarf, and neither the detector doorway nor the security wand picked it up. My son said “that’s the worst security ever!”. But it turned out to be okay, because when the passenger got on the Playmobil B757 and tried to hijack it, she was mobbed by a couple of other heroic passengers, who only sustained minor injuries in the scuffle, which were treated at the Playmobil Hospital.”
  • “The best thing about this product is that it teaches kids about the realities of living in a high-surveillence society. My son said he wants the Playmobil Neighborhood Surveillence System set for Christmas. I’ve heard that the CC TV cameras on that thing are pretty worthless in terms of quality and motion detection, so I think I’ll get him the Playmobil Abu-Gharib Interogation Set instead (it comes with a cute little memo from George Bush).”
  • “My family was planning a vacation to Europe, so I purchased this item to teach my twins about what to expect at the airport and hopefully, alleviate some of their anxiety. We also downloaded the actual TSA security checklist from the American Airlines website and then proceeded with our demonstration. Well, first we had to round up a Barbie and a few Bratz dolls to play the other family members, so that cost us a few extra bucks at the Dollar General and it is aggravating that the manufacturer did not make this product “family-friendly.” Of course, since the playmobil Dad could not remove his shoes or other clothing items, unlike the Barbie, the playmobil security agent became suspicious and after waving her wand wildy a few dozen times, called her supervisor to wisk the Dad into a special body-cavity search room…”
  • “I like the basic idea. I applaud Playmobile for attempting to provide us with the tools we need to teach our children to unquestioningly obey the commands of the State Security Apparatus, but unfortunately, this product falls short of doing that. There’s no brown figure for little Josh to profile, taser, and detain? Where are all the frightened plastic Heartlanders pointing at the brown figure as they whisper “terrorist?” Where are the hippy couple figures being denied boarding passes? And shouldn’t someone be forcing a mother figure to drink her own breast milk?”

Via Brett Schenker. See also Playmobil Police Checkpoint.

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License plate scanners coming to a community near me

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 13th January 2009

Last month I happened to open an email on a neighborhood listserv I follow.  It was a Takoma Park Police Department press release titled “Takoma Park Police to Acquire License Plate Recognition Scanner.”  The announcement was as follows:

Chief Ricucci is pleased to announce that the Takoma Park Police Department has been granted funding in FY2009, through the Governor’s Office of Crime Control & Prevention (GOCCP), for a “License Plate Recognition Scanner (LETC).”

LETC is attached to a police cruiser. It works by capturing digital license plate images as they pass a camera, whether mobile or fixed. The plates are automatically cross-checked in real time against multiple local, regional, statewide and, if appropriate, national databases to identify vehicles that are of interest to the authorities. In fact, LETC can access multiple databases simultaneously and report not only matches but which database contained the vehicle of interest. Vehicle matches are reported instantly, allowing the officer to take appropriate action. […]

Research has shown that patrol officers equipped with the technology can have arrest rates significantly higher than officers working without it. This will deliver reductions in crime, enhanced community safety and safer roads.”

It turns out that “LETC” is not a technical acronym, but merely a funding source — it stands for “Law Enforcement and Corrections Tech Center” (and is therefore sometimes abbreviated LECTC), which is a federal funding mechanism (via the Department of Justice) for law enforcement technology grants such as this one.  The Maryland Governor’s Office of Crime Control & Prevention (GOCCP) receives LETC funds and disburses them to grant applicants deemed worthy of support; I’ll return to that in a moment.

This kind of program is something security expert Bruce Schneier calls “wholesale surveillance,” and it’s spreading fast.  Possibly the best known example is New York City’s “Operation Sentinel” scanning license plates coming into Manhattan via bridges and tunnels; in August 2008, WJZ (Baltimore) reported that a $4.5 million Homeland Security grant will pay for about 200 of the devices (either fixed or in squad cars) in the Maryland/DC area.

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