Candid camera?

“Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!” Sounds really nice, right?

Some local police departments in Northern Virginia are still randomly scanning license plate data — including the date, time and exact location where that license plate was located — and storing that data for years. That despite former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli telling state police last year in a strongly worded opinion that it was illegal to do so apart from a specific criminal investigation.

Why does that matter?

“The more information they get, the more they can tell about who you are, what you do, what doctor you see, what psychologist you see, where your car is parked,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU is fighting to eliminate the random collection and storage practice. …

“The police will say this is wonderful because it helps us get the bad guys,” Gastañaga said. “My response is you could [also] walk down my street and search every house on my street.”

– Kathryn Watson, “ACLU to Virginians: How much does your police department know about you?”, April 1, 2014,

As if tracking and storing the movement of law abiding citizens using their auto license plates wasn’t enough, there’s the FBI’s new Next Generation Identification (NGI) system that just went operational this month:

[The NGI system combines criminal mug shots] “…with non-criminal facial images taken from employment records and background check databases … [s]o someone with no criminal history could be suspected of a crime if his or her face happens to be in the database.

– Nick Canedo,“FBI facial recognition system now fully operational in 18,000 bureaus across the country,”, September 16, 2014.

“Non-criminal facial images? Say, if you have a driver’s license, they already have one of those for you on file, all set to add to the database! Great, eh?

This sort of thing makes me stop and think about those reluctant to be included in group photos taken while at social events. While many enjoy group photos as a reminder of a wonderful outing with their friends, others may prefer not to be in them; it’s kind of like not wanting to be in a school class photo or something. And that’s fine.

But then there are those who extend that preference a step further and confront those around them, demanding the deletion of any photo in which they may appear, citing concerns about identity theft and/or privacy.

The former concern may seem legitimate until you consider that the potential identity thief doesn’t want his or her target’s photo, because he/she will substitute their own likeness anyway, if a photo ID is involved.

The latter concern is simply misplaced, because people in public simply cannot expect total privacy, because they are publicly visible to anyone who might pass by. When in public spaces where [a person is] lawfully present, [he/she has] the right to photograph anything that is in plain view. Like it or not, while you are in public your photo is taken countless times every day, by passersby and by fixed cameras on streets, at traffic lights, and in stores, banks, etc.

Finally, as the above articles noted, the local police, in Virginia anyway, is illegally tracking and storing your movements in their database, and your photo is already mixed in with 8 million criminal mug shots in the FBI’s new database. If you’re worried about a photo compromising your privacy, our government’s increasingly police state mentality let that horse out of the barn long ago.

With all this going on, getting upset at a friend for taking your photo at an explicitly social event is acting like one of the Corleone family in this scene from the Godfather:

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11 Responses to Candid camera?

  1. Nice post and on an important topic. The gray lines of permission and obstruction and invasion are always murky in American history. Today it’s worse than ever with technology making it possible for officials to know your business. Big Brother is way too big. Makes me very nervous. The video clip from The Godfather was a nice touch! 😉

  2. John M says:

    Thanks! Many are inclined to shrug off intrusive police surveillance with a “nothing to worry about if you’re doing nothing wrong” attitude. In our modern society, with ever-increasing, Byzantine sets of laws and regulations to run afoul of, that is a dangerous attitude to take! But a related behavior that confuses me are those who will angrily confront friends who include them in casual photos taken in the park, while ignoring passersby by who are also taking their photo. It’s a curious instance in which complete strangers are apparently afforded more courtesy than friends. o_O

  3. John, I can’t help but wonder if this didn’t happen to you recently. It’s never happened to me; living in VA around DC area has many people on edge. I must say in Arizona, no one seems to care at all. It’s like stepping back in time fifty years. I attribute it to the big sky and space between the next person.

  4. seeker says:

    Yes, big brothers are always watching for sure even. There’s is hardly anything such as privacy. As for the group picture and being photograph candidly, it’s unavoidable and there could be some friction. That’s why most of my shots that I post on people, faces are obscure or just the profile is shown.

    As for the government, I think they have too much money to spend on this kind of activity. Good post, John.

  5. John M says:

    Actually, the news stories are the recent events, which prompted me to reflect on only a few incidents observed over several years. There is certainly a disparity between what people are willing to impose on others and what they are comfortable with for themselves (e.g., the Milgram experiment). Maybe the disparity is more pronounced around DC, since DC imposes surveillance policy on the rest of the Nation! :/

  6. John M says:

    Thanks! I agree that photos can be a source of friction. Like you, I rarely use photos of anyone on this website. If I am posting photos on a group website, I try to select nice ones and respect any requests for deletion. It can be frustrating, though, when there those who want to be right in the middle of every group, yet somehow never have their photo appear! 😕 Until we develop cloaking technology, there’s just no end in sight…

    Government surveillance reminds me of an old Calvin & Hobbes cartoon in which Calvin, while holding and looking at a croquet mallet, observes, “I’ve played before and I can tell you the temptation to misuse these things is awful.”

  7. seeker says:

    The Klingon cloaking device has no match for a group photo. I always say in taking a group photo for anyone to excuse themselves since the shot will be posted in public 🙂

    Thanks for amusing me with Calvin and Hobbes.

  8. Pingback: Temptation | The Seeker

  9. Jim Bovard says:

    Excellent post, John. I’m sorry to hear that my native state Virginia is following the same servile path as my current state, Maryland. There was a smattering of protest when news leaked out that Mont. Co., MD police were using license plate readers but folks around here tend to accept any govt. intrusion that purports to keep them safe from scofflaws. The local news articles related how the plate scanners helped cops catch a few people who had omitted required visits to the Vehicle Emissions test sites – thereby putting all their neighbors at risk of instant death.

    The license plate data could also be used to identify attendees at political protests – and thus enable the govt. to target them.

    On the FBI facial images project – at least the feds will have ‘faces’ to go with the personal email that the NSA illegally vacuums up.

    I am puzzled why most folks are docile on these intrusions. The more information government gathers on people, the more power it will have over them. The more power it has to monitor their peaceful activities, the more intimidated Americans will become.

    As far as people objecting to their photos being taken while on a group hike — heck, 10% of the hikers have cameras and are snapping at practically anything that moves. If someone wants to form a “no photos allowed” hiking group, that is their prerogative. But if someone choose to attend a hike with lots of avid photographers, they cannot expect to be invisible.

  10. John M says:

    Thanks! Some of this may be a case of developers or even the federal government offering capabilities to local authorities, despite the lack of any legitimate requirement. Once the capabilities exist, so does the temptation to misuse them.

    Cellphone cameras have made avid photographers (and publishers) of everyone!

  11. cindy knoke says:

    Further erosions of our right to privacy! Thanks for posting~

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