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Serving the communities of Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties, New York
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Candid cameras

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With the emphasis of government agencies on spying on everything that moves, and even some things that don’t, many civil libertarians are concerned that we’re becoming the police state that we as Americans loathe.

New revelations about the extent of the federal government’s domestic surveillance tactics reveal themselves periodically as a result of the information made public by Edward Snowden. There is a sharp debate about Snowden’s actions as a contractor for the National Security Agency: Will the documents he leaked end up being more significant for the huge breach of security their theft exposed or for the details they shared about how our government is acting?

Finding out how much information the government is attempting to learn about us has been disturbing, to say the least. But when viewed against the backdrop of what’s happening throughout much of the country, it can’t really be too surprising.

For years, major cities have used surveillance cameras to capture every moment visible to the astute eye. And now this Big Brother mindset is spreading through rural areas.

County and municipal police departments in the north country are using license plate readers to scan for vehicles that have been flagged.

The devices take photographs of the license plate and vehicle.

If the plate number has been marked as needing attention, officers may investigate the issue further.

What concerns groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union is what happens to these digital images once they have been captured. The ACLU believes that creating and storing the photographs jeopardizes people’s privacy.

In a Wednesday story in the Watertown Daily Times, local law enforcement officials said the information gathered has a very limited shelf life. St. Lawrence County Sheriff Kevin M. Wells, Lewis County Undersheriff James M. Monnat, Jefferson County Undersheriff Paul W. Trudeau and Watertown city police Capt. Cheryl A. Clark all said their agencies do not store the images taken.

This is comforting to know. But this attitude toward collecting information isn’t shared by some other departments.

“The Syracuse Post-Standard reported Sunday that Onondaga County keeps the license plate pictures in its database for a year, and that state police maintain their own database where information is stored for five years,” the Times’ story said. “According to the ACLU’s report, Dutchess County also retains license plate information ‘that has not been flagged as part of an investigation or incident’ for a year.”

Technology is making the security vs. liberty debate more complicated. We all deserve a measure of safety, and this places specific burdens on our community leaders to increase protection.

But we don’t want to feel like we’re being spied on every time we walk out the front door. Deciding how to balance the two competing interests has not become any easier.

In developing our surveillance state, perhaps we need to point the viewfinder in the other direction. The government should spend less time watching us, while we must spend more time watching it.

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