…But it might not do you any good.
Forget about rounding up the usual suspects. Now, every one of us are suspects.
This story is about what you get when you cross George Orwell’s 1948 novel, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1984), with Steven Spielberg’s 2002 movie, “Minority Report“. This, however, is not about science fiction. What I’m going to discuss is happening today, in the United States. It’s scarier than any movie, and it affects every American.
In “Nineteen Eighty-Four“, Big Brother was watching you. It was a totalitarian society, with the “Thought Police” and the “Ministry of Truth”. There was the inescapable network of telescreens. Resistance was futile. “Thoughtcrime” was punishable by death.
In “Minority Report“, which was a look at law enforcement in the year 2054, a computer decided who the suspects were. Since it was incapable of making mistakes, it was a foregone conclusion that the suspects would be found guilty. The Police “Pre-Crime Division” would not arrest you after you committed a crime. They would arrest you before you committed a crime. Not willing to go quietly? No problem. They’ll just “halo” you. If you have any doubt, just ask John Anderton (aka Tom Cruise).
Fast forward (or rewind) to the year 2008. I just read a newspaper article (here’s another article) about a relatively new tool that police departments around the United States are using (also see article from Wired Magazine). It is called the”Mobile Plate Hunter 900“. The MPH-900 can be used in a fixed location, or mounted in a police vehicle. The system records the license plates of vehicles that pass, or are passed by the police vehicle containing it’s set of cameras. The system identifies the vehicle tag, and does a lookup of the vehicle tags against data in FBI, state and local databases. It will alert the police to something as innocuous as an expired vehicle registration, to more serious things like stolen vehicles and vehicles associated with wanted persons.
The “Mobile Plate Hunter 900”
In my opinion, what we have here, plain and simple, is a high-tech fishing expedition. Not that this tactic is anything new, though. I suspect that ever since police departments started installing data terminals in police cars in the last few years, many police officers with nothing better to do have “run” tags through the system with no cause for suspicion, but rather just to see if they could catch some fish. The “Mobile Plate Hunter 900” simply automates the process, allowing as many as ten thousand tags to be checked during an officer’s shift. Of course, if you’re not a criminal, you have nothing to fear. Or do you?
Perhaps the most troubling part of what I’ve read (see newspaper article), is that the police are building historical databases from the data gathered by this system. They are mining that data to identify suspects to crimes that might have not even been committed at the time the system recorded the vehicle tag! Talk about Pre-Crime!
According to Remington ELSAG, the manufacturer of the MPH-900…
This system reads plates from a stationary location or at highway speeds and cross references them against an onboard hotlist. The system alarms within a second of identifying a plate on the hotlist and can process hundreds of plates per minute. An onboard image and GPS coordinates of every plate scanned are stored and can be referenced later.
Here’s an excerpt from the newspaper article I referenced earlier…
The plate hunter had success in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where a State Police car using the cameras in January of last year identified a tag linked to a vehicle owned by a man who committed a quadruple homicide.
Once Mark Serrano emerged as a suspect, authorities were able to search the system and determined his vehicle was near the scene on the morning of the murders, said Sgt. Ira Promisel of the New York State Police. A jury convicted Serrano of first-degree murder last year, based in part on information the cameras gathered.
If that isn’t straight from the Pre-Crime Division in Minority Report, my name isn’t RoutingByRumor. What does the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have to say about something like this? I don’t know. But here’s what the New York Civil Liberties Union said…
…such efficiency comes at the expense of every motorist’s civil right to avoid police surveillance unless a law has been violated, officials with the New York Civil Liberties Union argue.
“Police really should be in the business of investigating crimes, not tracking law-abiding citizens,” said Barrie Gewanter, executive director of the Central New York Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
“When we are driving and we are always having our licenses plates examined, then everybody on the road is being treated as a suspect,” she said.
In 2008, we may not have George Orwell’s telescreens everywhere, but we do have video iPods, camera phones, and surveillance cameras everywhere. I find it amazing how many crimes are recorded on video these days, whether by law enforcement, businesses or private citizens. The police may not have the Halo yet, but they do have the Taser. Are you scared yet?
Don’t Tase Me, Bro
I think the closest thing the police have to Minority Report’s “Halo” is the Taser. The police use of the Taser received wide coverage in September 2007, after Andrew Meyer, a 21 year old University of Florida student uttered the phrase heard around the world, “Don’t Tase Me, Bro”, and was promptly tasered by police (see this youtube video). His crime? Attempting to ask a question at a UF town hall meeting featuring (U.S.) Senator John Kerry (see Kerry’s bio), and as some have accused him, being obnoxious. Unfortunately, I searched the Florida criminal statutes hoping to find the specific statute that covers obnoxious college students, but I couldn’t find one. I find it quite disturbing then, that the University of Florida Police were able to use potentially lethal force against Mr. Meyer, since his crime does not appear to warrant the death penalty.
I have watched a couple of videos of the UF tasing event, and read some of the police reports on the Meyer incident that were posted to the Web. Mr. Meyer is not some thug or terrorist. He graduated from Cypress Bay High School in Weston, Florida, where he was a member of the National Honor Society. He is (or was) a journalism major, and on the staff of the UF student newspaper. But I also think he was a self-appointed agent provocateur, who appears to have been out of order when he commandeered a microphone to ask Senator Kerry a couple of loaded questions, after the Q&A session was closed. Perhaps Mr. Meyer was seeking his 15 minutes of fame. Perhaps he just wanted to embarrass Senator Kerry. Perhaps he has some mental health issues. I don’t really know what his motivation was.
What I am quite certain of is that there was absolutely no reason for the Goon Squad to treat Mr. Meyer to an electroshock therapy session, or the audience to a horror show. The police report states that Mr. Meyer was “arrested and transported to AC/DC”, which it later indicates is the “Alachua County Detention Center”. Then again, perhaps “AC/DC” refers to the electrical waveform of the electroshock torture they administered.
If you watch this video of the arrest from The Gainesville Sun, it is clear that there were a half-dozen goons piled on top of Mr. Meyer. Yes, he was yelling. Yes, he probably should have just gone limp and let the goons drag him away. But he clearly was not going anywhere, and was not a threat to the members of the audience or the police officers.
My opinion is that he was tasered to punish him, and possibly just so the goons could get their jollies and assert their authority. Police do not have the latitude to determine guilt or decide on a punishment. It was an unnecessary use of force and an abuse of police power. But I think it was also exactly what Mr. Meyer wanted. His intention was to create a scene. The more controversial, the better. The messier, the better. The more publicity it generated, the better. He has certainly gotten his 15 minutes, and then some. He has appeared on NBC’s Today show.
RoutingByRumor awards Andrew William Meyer it’s 2007 “Most Memorable Quote Of The Year” award, for his contribution of “Don’t Tase Me, Bro!” to the American lexicon, and for unwittingly bringing the Taser issue to the forefront. The incident has caused the University of Florida to reconsider whether to arm it’s police department with Tasers. Sometimes, good things result from bad situations.
In some instances, the Taser has become a weapon of torture, used to inflict pain, punish, and in some cases, unintentially kill suspects. More than 300 individuals have died as a result of being tasered. The United Nations Committee Against Torture has said that Taser use “constituted a form of torture” (see this article). Amnesty International USA has called for a moratorium on the use of Tasers by police, saying “The penalty for resisting arrest should not be death” (see this article). Read Amnesty’s Taser abuse article here.
Because it is viewed as a less-lethal weapon, police are much more likely to use it, as opposed to a firearm. But because of it’s potential for abuse, including being used to torture, and the potential to cause death, the Taser is much more dangerous than Minority Report’s “Halo”. Police feel free to use the Taser in situations where they would never consider shooting an individual. Watch this youtube video (viewer discretion advised) of a Utah Highway Patrol officer tasering 28 year-old Jared Massey, who was suspected of nothing more than speeding. His most serious crime, it seems, was asking the officer how fast he was speeding.
The Utah Office of Tourism might want to use Jared Massey as it’s spokesman. Under a heading of “Come See Utah, Close Up”, they can show Jared face down on the asphalt, eating gravel and writhing in pain, as Utah Highway Patrol’s Trooper John Gardner repeatedly sends 50,000 volts through his body, while Mr. Massey’s wife screams hysterically in the background. Oh yeah… that horror show should draw tourists to the great state of Utah.
Why am I digressing the discussion of the “Mobile Plate Hunter 900” into a discussion about misuse of the Taser? I don’t think it’s too far fetched to assume that sometime in the not-too-distant future, if it hasn’t happened already, something similar to the following scenario might play out…
A police officer on patrol is alerted by his “Mobile Plate Hunter 900” to the presence of a stolen vehicle. The officer approaches the vehicle, but because of a language barrier, the occupants do not understand the officer’s instructions. A confrontation ensues that causes the officer to use his Taser on one of the suspects, who goes into cardiac arrest and dies.
It turns out that the vehicle was not stolen. The license plate number of a stolen vehicle had been entered into a police computer incorrectly. The dead suspect had done nothing wrong. He was, as they say, just “in the wrong place at the wrong time”. If police were not going on high-tech fishing expeditions, the fellow would still be alive.
Of course, I’m ignoring all the cases where criminals are caught, and stolen vehicles are recovered, thanks to tools like the “Mobile Plate Hunter 900”. The issue I am raising is whether Americans are well served by the use of such technology, or whether it infringes on our constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties.
You have reason to be concerned if your local police use either Tasers, or the “Mobile Plate Hunter 900”. If they close your municipal swimming pool so that Agatha, Arthur and Daschle can take a dip, you’re really in trouble. You’ll need to talk to Dr. Iris Hineman (Lois Smith).
Agatha (Samantha Morton), one of the three “precogs” in Minority Report
…To be continued