Big Brother on Tybee Island?

From the Savannah Morning News’ Tybee to purchase licence plate scanners:

The Tybee City Council’s vote Thursday night to purchase two license plate reading cameras means in the near future every vehicle that drives on and off the island city will be scanned.

Council voted 5-1 late Thursday to approve the purchase suggested by Police Chief Bob Bryson of the scanners to be installed in both directions of U.S. 80 on the Lazaretto Creek Bridge. Barry Brown opposed the vote to purchase the system that will run license plate tags against criminal information databases like the National Crime Information Center and the Georgia Crime Information Center.

The purchase was approved even though there is no policy statement about how the information will be handled. Tybee officials are promising that a policy will be in place soon, however, and that it will do such things as mandate that all information not part of a criminal investigation be destroyed after 72 hours.

But who’s to say exactly what is part of a criminal investigation?

There’s only one way on and off Tybee Island, of course. So imagine there’s a burglary some night and the police have few clues except a witness’ vague description of a car that left the scene. That investigation could go on for days or weeks or maybe even months. So would the Tybee police, an organization that has seen its fair share of controversy over the years, just sit on all that data, much of which could be used to identify movements of law-abiding citizens who guard their privacy?

And what about subpoenas and civil actions — contentious divorces and the like?

On an island as small as Tybee, can we even be sure that those with access to the plate numbers won’t have personal contacts in other contexts with the folks who are legally coming and going?

Are these paranoid questions? I don’t know, because there is no policy in place for how the information will be used.

The article notes a clear upside in using the data for economic studies — we can literally get hard counts of the number of cars and even know states and counties from which they come. That information could be beneficial in myriad ways.

But we can get pretty good tourism data via other means.

I don’t know quite what to make of statements in the article about the ways in which a policy like this, if well-publicized, might deter criminals from coming on to the island. I suppose that’s possible, but how exactly will the policy be publicized? And do we really want some draconian warning to be part of Tybee’s reputation?

For many, Tybee has been a place where one can get away from some of the demands of modern life — and it has been to some extent a haven for libertarians who like to live and let live.

It would be hard — maybe impossible — to see Tybee like that if law enforcement starts running checks on every car that comes on or off the island.