One of the last venues offering any kind of privacy in this country is -- or was -- your car. No longer.
According to a study by the American Civil Liberties Union, law enforcement agencies across the country using automated scanners are able to pinpoint in real time the location and movement of millions of vehicles.
The scanner images are stored for whatever length of time the collecting agency chooses to keep them in giant databases holding millions of images. The scanners are mounted on bridges, buildings, toll booths, intersections, tunnels and on police cruisers.
Police can track a suspicious car by getting a warrant to plant a GPS, but no such permission is needed for a scanner, a passive device mounted in a public location.
Maryland officials say that scanners on state troopers' cars can examine up to 7,000 license plates in a single eight-hour shift while the trooper goes about his normal patrol duties.
Few states -- New Hampshire being a notable exception -- place restrictions on scanners and those mostly involve how long the images can be stored. And police say bluntly that there is no expectation of privacy for vehicles driving or parked on public roads.
The scanners have obvious utility in cases of missing or abducted persons, carjackings, drug shipments, car theft and tracking perpetrators fleeing from the scene of a crime.
While it's possible to posit significant law enforcement benefits from the scanners, in fact the odds of actually solving or preventing a crime are not at all good. The ACLU said that Maryland read 29 million license plates between January and May of last year. Of those, 60,000 were found to be suspicious, but offenses like expired plates or failing to have an emissions inspection sticker accounted for 97 percent of the plates flagged.
The scanners are akin to the old metaphor of being unable to put the toothpaste back in the tube. If we have the technology and it is not unnecessarily intrusive, we might as well use it. But Maryland has the right idea in restricting to criminal investigations the use of scanners and the databases they create.
Forget privacy. That's so 20th century. The 21st century requires you to smile, or at least keep a clean license plate, because you're on candid camera.
Dale McFeatters is a columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.