MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And now to California where a little town has a big and controversial idea: The tony town of Tiburon wants to install security cameras on roads leading into it. That means the license plate of every car that enters Tiburon could be recorded.

Reporter David Gorn got in his car to find out who's behind the plan and who's not.

(Soundbite of vehicles driving by)

DAVID GORN: You have to work a bit to find this place.

(Soundbite of vehicles driving by)

GORN: Most people in the Bay Area couldn't tell you which winding road lead here to the tucked-away enclave across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. It's a place that values its privacy and its security.

(Soundbite of vehicles driving by)

GORN: Alice Fredericks, the mayor of Tiburon, stands near that winding road into town and points out that this place has an unique geographical distinction.

Mayor ALICE FREDERICKS (Tiburon, California): Tiburon is unusual because there are only two roads going in and out of the town.

GORN: So it's pretty easy, she says, to keep track of every car along those two roads. The town council, last week, decided to pony up about $200,000 to place six security cameras at strategic points along the road. For now, the plan is to make sure none of the cars coming into town are stolen. Crime stats are certainly low in Tiburon, but in a small town, the mayor says, even just a few crimes make an impact.

Mayor FREDERICKS: If you're out and about a lot the way I am, every day you run into someone who was either affected by a crime in town or knows someone who was. So it's real.

GORN: Still, some people in the area, like 31-year resident Bill Rothman, think it's a crazy idea.

Mr. BILL ROTHMAN: They're not security cameras. They're insecurity cameras.

GORN: And Nicole Ozer of the American Civil Liberties Union would agree.

Ms. NICOLE OZER: You know, this city of Tiburon has really bought itself a $200,000 bottle of snake oil.

GORN: Because, Ozer says, that by spending money on cameras instead of police officers, you are actually doing something that's less safe. And she says it's a hornet's nest of potential lawsuits.

Ms. OZER: These cameras are expensive, there's no evidence that they'll do anything to make Tiburon safer and, once these cameras are up, they can very easily be used for spying and discriminatory targeting.

GORN: Police run license-plate checks all the time, says Jennifer King, an expert in technology and public policy at the UC Berkeley, and really this plan is just running ton of plate checks. The problem, King says, is that once the equipment is installed, safeguards to protect privacy can change. For instance, currently the car license plate information is supposed to be purged after eight hours, but what if a crime occurs and suddenly that info becomes more important?

Ms. JENNIFER KING (Technology And Public Policy, UC Berkeley): They may start today by keeping it eight hours, but I almost bet you that what they'll find is that, you know, somebody will come back and go, oh, if only we had the data from those cameras. You know, certainly we need it for a week, or certainly we need it for two weeks, and maybe we'll just keep it for a year. We call it scope creep in the technology world. That scope can really crawl, really grow very quickly.

GORN: And King adds eventually this technology might end up being used against Tiburon residents themselves. Electronic bridge toll records hold similar information on license plates and those have been subpoenaed for all kinds of things, including divorce cases.

For NPR News, David Gorn.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.