Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Press Releases: Protecting liberty

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Newspapers need to be stronger watchdogs about government attempts to intrude on individual rights.
Let's look at how five local newspapers (the three weeklies covering the city, and the two Portland-based dailies) covered a recent civil-liberties debate.

The South Portland Police Department purchased a car-mounted system that can take digital images of every license plate it passes (whether the cars are parked or moving) and compare them to an electronic database, immediately alerting officers if a nearby vehicle has been reported stolen or otherwise involved in a crime. The system will store all the images — not just those it alerts on — in a searchable electronic database for up to 30 days.

Proponents say the technology will help make people safer, by helping cops identify wanted cars instantaneously, and by allowing them to search through past records to find vehicles that were not flagged in real time, but are later being sought for some reason.

Opponents (including Democratic senator Dennis Damon of Hancock County, who has introduced a bill that would outlaw use of the system) say this kind of monitoring, and especially the storage of the data collected, amounts to excessive government surveillance, mostly of innocent citizens.

Most of the papers had the same basic information, but reading them all revealed useful information that reading any one would have failed to provide.

The CURRENT offered the most substantive coverage, including lengthy interviews with parties on all sides, and even sending a reporter to ride with police to observe the system — with a bonus for getting the cops to scan her license plate as a demonstration of what personal information would and would not be recorded or accessible to police. Nevertheless, the piece downplayed the police's desire to keep data on innocent drivers.

The PORTLAND DAILY SUN distilled the question most clearly and simply: whether the technology simply allows police to improve performance of a routine task, or whether it amounts to a massive new surveillance program. The paper also, in a quote, pointed out that people give massive amounts of personal information to corporations (such as Facebook), but did not note that they do so willingly, and that those corporations don't have the power to lock you up, as cops do.

The PORTLAND PRESS HERALD put out the first story on the issue, and explained it clearly, noting importantly — and exclusively, as it turned out — that the police want access to more data on cars and drivers, to expand their ability to do real-time searches.

The SOUTH PORTLAND SENTRY offered anemic coverage, quoting five people and a Web site. The story was published a week later than its competitors' versions, and omitted important facts that had been previously reported and that could be easily verified (such as the fact that a lawmaker the paper quoted supporting the system had initially co-sponsored the bill to outlaw it).

The SOUTHERN FORECASTER, despite being third to press (after the PPH and the Current), broke the news that Democratic senator Larry Bliss, who lives in South Portland and represents part of the city, had originally co-sponsored the bill banning the use of the system, but had seen a demonstration and reversed his position. However, it failed to capitalize on that scoop, allowing Bliss to explain his change of heart with vague platitudes rather than specific things he saw during the demo. ("I think people will be safer," the paper quotes him as saying, without detailing what he learned that changed his mind 180 degrees.)

Time to step up the skepticism, people.

(Two disclosures: I live in South Portland. And from 2001 to 2005, I worked for the Current, whose ownership remains the same but whose editorial staff is entirely different than when I was there.)