What is the “libertarian” view on University Center surveillance?

20131218_165118In the form of an open letter addressed to Irvine Planning Commissioner Mary Ann Gaido, Irvine City Council candidate Courtney Santos tackles the thorny issue of private surveillance, such as the new parking enforcement measures at the University Center, including a special patrol vehicle that scans license plates and records the duration and frequency of each car’s visits to the center.

Dear Commissioner Gaido:

I’m writing in response to your statement on July 7 at the Planning Commission meeting, about the University Center’s new parking surveillance technology. If I recall correctly, you said that you “agree with the libertarians that this kind of surveillance is wrong.”

While there is a great deal of variety and diversity in libertarian views, this struck me as not in keeping with Libertarian Party platform statements on privacy nor with the weight of libertarian philosophy with which I’ve become familiar. After the meeting, I asked some other libertarian-minded folks about the question that you raised on private surveillance, and they agreed with my contention that most libertarians do not oppose surveillance on private property to enforce the property owner’s rules, especially when the surveillance isn’t covert and clear signage is provided to inform patrons.

Consider other similar uses of technology in the private sector: I don’t know many libertarians who oppose video cameras in stores to prevent theft or calls that are recorded to ensure good customer service. This kind of license plate data is also routinely collected in pay garages to verify that which vehicles are paid by employers (such as at my mother’s workplace near South Coast Plaza, and, as the Irvine Company representatives told me last week, at their office parks).

Some people may feel uncomfortable about license plate and visit duration surveillance or find it creepy. And there is reason to be concerned that the government could subpoena this data, or is already patching it into the Homeland Security apparatus, as they may be doing with cell phone location data. But government access (or abuse) of private data sources doesn’t make the mere collection of visit data by a private landholder morally or ethically “wrong.”

It’s the use of surveillance by law enforcement without a warrant that we oppose, as a 4th Amendment issue. As the Cornell University Legal Information Institute writes, “Private intrusions not acting in the color of governmental authority are exempted from the Fourth Amendment.”

Additionally, I believe there are a number of mitigating factors in this specific instance of private surveillance that merit consideration:

  • There’s no expectation of license plate privacy when outdoors: Identifiable information like your face, voice, or license plate number is all exposed to the public on a regular basis.
  • Participants are aware they’re being observed: Unlike the government, which attempts to keep its myriad surveillance programs top-secret, patrons of the center are informed through ample signage and a visible patrol vehicle.
  • The project is narrow in scope and appears to be implemented without discrimination or targeting: The data is being collected for a specific and narrow purpose (enforcement of parking policy) and is applied equally to all visitors to the center and workers (not targeting particular demographics or using racial profiling).
  • The project is limited in scale: Data collection is only being implemented at a single center, making it easy for those who do not wish to participate voluntarily to avoid it by visiting alternative retail centers elsewhere in the city. (If it was being implemented at all 25 Irvine Company retail centers in Irvine, I’d be more concerned since they have a near-monopoly.)
  • The project only impacts drivers: Visitors who walk, bike, or take public transit to the center will not be impacted. In fact, having had the unsettling experience of being followed through the center on foot by a security guard, I believe it may reduce the need for human security staff to follow visitors to figure out where they are parked and where they are going, which might even be “creepier” than documenting license plates.
  • It is easy for people to avoid participation in the project: Within Irvine, even within Orange County, the University Center is one of the retail locations best served by public transit alternatives to driving, with at least five OCTA bus routes making stops there (six routes, until Route 175 is discontinued in October 2016.)

The Irvine Company, in short, appears to be responsibly exercising its rights as a private property owner, and consumers can also exercise their rights by voting with their feet if they dislike the new measures. And if consumers hate it and stop using the center in large numbers, the Irvine Company will probably change course.

I imagine it may be eye-opening for a planning commission that appears to exist mainly to weaken property rights and intervene in the decisions of property owners (from zoning all the way down to sign font sizes!) to hear the issue discussed in this fashion, as something the market can take care of on its own.

I hope that this helps to clarify the “libertarian” approach to private surveillance. Please let me know if I can be of further help in illuminating how economic freedom and civil liberties can be respected at the city level. I look forward to seeing you at future meetings.


Courtney Santos


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