Gov. Jim Gibbons recently announced that he is reconsidering a plan -- already rejected by the 2009 Legislature -- to install a surveillance net of cameras throughout Nevada's roadways to catch "insurance scofflaws." The plan's efficacy is questionable at best. All we know for sure is that it would be a big step forward to making Nevada a surveillance state.
Under this particular surveillance network, every license plate would be scanned, captured and analyzed by a private company. There is an astonishing lack of control over how private businesses use or disseminate all the data they collect about us. But what we do know is that in every case where massive amounts of data are stored by private companies -- Internet providers, Web site operators, phone companies, cell phone GPS systems, for example -- the government has later attempted to obtain that information without oversight, accountability or, most importantly, a warrant.
The government could, for example, seek the camera records of every car attending a particular political rally; could track the daily traffic patterns of individuals; could even request that InsureNet provide them with real-time location of a particular car -- without any court oversight or warrant.
And no one should understand the privacy risks like residents of Las Vegas. In 2004, the FBI requested and received hundreds of thousands of customer records from private car rental, air and hotel companies -- and all of this data, which many tourists probably hoped would stay in Vegas, remains somewhere in an FBI centralized data bank to be mined, compared and analyzed by the government. Las Vegas is already a surveillance city; why turn Nevada into a surveillance state?
The continually increasing presence of cameras in Nevada symbolizes the potential for a dark future, where our every move, our every location and our every communication, is recorded, compiled and stored away, ready to be examined and used against us by the authorities whenever they want.
The supposed justification for the plan? Money.
Our civil liberties should not be for sale, no matter how grim the budget crisis is.
Additionally, the theoretical collection of these insurance fines is just that -- a theory. The company has never built a system in the United States. Even insurance industry organizations question whether it could work. And it would require already burdened court resources to collect fines.
If it does work, it's InsureNet that stands to profit -- without competitive bidding for the state contract. If there are fines to be collected, the DMV should be collecting them without giving a cut to InsureNet -- and they should be collected in a way that does not subject every driver on Nevada's freeways to surveillance. The DMV just spent our tax money to upgrade its own insurance verification system, greatly reducing any justification for the InsureNet proposal to actually prevent unlicensed motorists from driving on our roads.
Moreover, the premise that we should fund our long-term budget gaps with the income of consistent lawbreaking is bizarre. Nevadans should resist the temptation to fill shortfalls with the profits of crime, because it means as a public policy we want people violating the law. If they don't, our budget problems come back -- but we've still got the surveillance technology in place. This type of short-sighted budgeting is not only fiscally unreliable and arbitrary -- it gives the government unnecessarily broad surveillance powers and also the perverse incentives to see every citizen as a walking dollar sign. We want law enforcement to be enforcing good public policy -- not a fine or fee at any cost.
The Legislature rightly rejected this unsound legislation in 2009. Let's hope that support for the principles of privacy, good sense and good government once again leads to this idea's demise at the special session.
This was published as a Special Op-Ed to the Las Vegas Review-Journal on February 21, 2010.