BIG Brother has your number on the Ohio Turnpike, and his ubiquitous reach is more than a little disquieting to discover.
The Ohio State Highway Patrol is pleased as punch about new, electronic scanning devices strategically placed on the turnpike to read every license plate that travels the toll road. But civil libertarians are understandably skeptical.
The potential to nab bad guys has troopers excited. The patrol says the system, which scans license plates like bar-code readers at the grocery, already helped retrieve a stolen Ford Taurus just after it entered the turnpike from Pennsylvania. The scanners feed the license plate characters into a huge national crime database where any matches with a "wanted" vehicle - either stolen or perhaps driven by a fugitive or suspected criminal - are routed to appropriate authorities.
Basically, Big Brother can cast a much bigger net than any individual trooper can running a particular plate through his computer or making a traffic stop. But the opportunity for misuse of all that information concerns some who fear vehicles not matching any incriminating material in a national database could be tracked nonetheless.
Jeff Gamso, the Ohio legal director with the American Civil Liberties Union, worries about the temptation to expand the uses of the scanners to conduct surveillance if state authorities decide to deploy more of the devices throughout the highway system. "They have the means to track everybody's movements all the time, as long as they're in a car," the Toledo lawyer said.
The highway patrol insists operation of the devices will be by the book, with no clandestine activities or information-sharing unknown to the public. "We will fully disclose who the equipment is going to be used by," said patrol spokesman Lt. Rick Zwayer. You have their word on it.
Still, skepticism persists and Mr. Gamso wonders if the actual numbers of stolen vehicles recovered or wanted fugitives using the turnpike really justify the patrol initiating a four-month test of the devices in Ohio through a $61,000 federal grant.
Definite questions of public interest need to be answered before the highway patrol signs onto the new digital technology to ostensibly make law enforcement more effective.