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Is Big Data violating your rights?

The dutiful stenographers in the media are all aflutter about the notion that immigrants should be tracked upon entry. The GOP’s candidates have all been asked about this, and they’re mostly OK with the idea that there should be a database that accounts for the whereabouts of immigrants.

Over at Reason, they’re commenting that these databases violate the rights of those that are tracked. “… [b]ut Trump is not alone in believing that databases should be used to deny people’s civil liberties. For an idea just as bad as Trump’s, we’ll need to cross the aisle to the Democrats. As Brian Doherty had previously noted, the New York Daily News, in its tabloid-style anti-gun push, has been calling for the federal government to ban the sale of guns to people who are suspected of being terrorists on the basis of being on federal terror watch lists. Not actually even charged with any sort of crime. Just suspected by the Department of Justice …”

But while the “firestorm” rages in the mainstream media, there’s a little publicized fact that they’re leaving out; Big Data and government have been cooperating (or collaborating) for years.

Here’s a promotional video from Palantir (think SkyNet) touting it’s relationship with our own LAPD. It was posted in the beginning of 2013. In it, several actual LAPD personnel note their successes using the platform to data-mine.

So what? What can it do? Watch the video.

License plate recognition (LPR) is the process whereby a camera (either vehicle mounted or stationary) and a database record every license plate that comes in front of the camera. LPR is specifically cited in the LAPD Palantir video as one of the “data silos” connected by Palantir’s platform. According to this article from early 2014, the LAPD and the LASD have been “… collecting information on every license plate in Los Angeles as part of an ongoing “investigation”—whether or not a crime has been committed.” LA Weekly had this story about the LAPD’s plans to fold the city’s traffic camera network into the LPR world. Did they?

The video shows that with just a few numbers/letters of a license plate, the Palantir user can pull up actual pictures of matching cars. This can then be focussed closer until a match is reached. A keen eye will notice that some of the searchable fields include geo-location information and time. This means that each photo of a car on the street is tagged with it’s time and location, then saved in the database for who knows how long. This press release announced a roll out of LPR in 2005.

It also demonstrates that there’s a database of “Field Interview Cards.” This is that little paper card that an officer fills out when he questions you. Guilty, innocent, witness, victim, traffic violator, whatever; if you’ve been interviewed in the field, it’s likely that your information has been entered into the system. Thanks to the power of the platform, with just a few bits of information, your history is just a click away.

If you think that LA is alone in leveraging the power of Big Data, you’re wrong. Ever major metropolitan area is doing this, or something very similar with another vendor.

So while the media is frothing at the mouth at the suggestion that there should be a database of immigrants, they’re largely ignoring the fact that Big Data and government have been tracking folks for years, decades. If a database of folks crossing our borders is bad, why isn’t a database of cars passing through LA also a bad thing?

Is it OK for the government and big data to mine the information you willingly put out in the public space? What about your E-Z Pass activity, or your Facebook account? Where does it end?