Published November 25, 2013
City officials on Tybee Island want to know more about the tourists who visit Georgia's largest public beach, and they plan to spend nearly $29,000 on a pair of computer-linked cameras designed to read and record the license plate of every car and truck that comes and goes on the island.
But the officials in this town may have inadvertently thrust it into a national privacy debate by approving the use of scanners to track cars entering and leaving their community.
By posting the car-tag scanners along the only road linking the island to the mainland, Tybee officials will know precisely when cars arrive and whether they stay for a few hours or several days. Collecting license plate numbers also will let the local government track where visitors are coming from — by state and county, and possibly city.
The mayor and City Council that govern Tybee Island, a beach getaway of 3,100 residents about 18 miles east of Savannah, voted almost unanimously to buy the license plate scanners Nov. 14. Within a week, local officials were getting emails from residents and tourists complaining that scanners would invade their privacy. Councilman Barry Brown said people from Atlanta to Charleston, S.C., wrote him to say that if Tybee installs license plate scanners, they won't be coming back.
"It's more than what this little community needs. It's kind of an overkill," said Brown, who cast the only vote against the scanners. "It's really not going to do anything but cause this island grief."
Tybee Island's interest shows just how popular the technology has become with government and police agencies nationwide. In a July report, the American Civil Liberties Union found that scanners attached to buildings, bridges and patrol cars across the U.S. now capture and store information on millions of vehicles, most belonging to Americans suspected of no wrongdoing. The report was based on information from hundreds of law enforcement agencies from Jersey City, N.J., to Grapevine, Texas.
Police departments use the scanners to look for cars registered to people with arrest warrants, track suspected drug traffickers, or search for vehicles linked to child abductions. The ACLU warned in its report that because they capture every passing car tag, the scanners could track the movements of innocent people. Falling costs have made the technology more affordable for smaller communities such as Tybee Island.
"It's not surprising that even a small town would have a license plate reader," said Catherine Crump, an ACLU staff attorney and one of the report's authors.
What makes Tybee Island appear to be an unusual candidate for scanners is that the beach community has little crime. Police reported four violent crimes, all aggravated assaults, last year and zero violent crimes in 2011, according to local crime statistics reported to the FBI. Property crimes on Tybee Island totaled 115 last year, almost all of them thefts.
Right now, it's unclear whether police Chief Robert Bryson and his officers will even get to use the scanners to help fight crime. So far, the only use approved by the mayor and council is to study tourism patterns.
"I get why people are concerned about it," Mayor Jason Buelterman said. "When the government knows when they arrive somewhere or when they're leaving, they get the feeling government is tracking them. But that's not the purpose at all."
The driving reason for investing in the scanners, Buelterman said, is to collect data to help a local professor studying tourist activity and spending on the island. Michael Toma, an economist at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, wants reliable information on how many cars come to Tybee Island. But the type of electronic car counter currently being used — resembling a black garden hose stretched across the highway as it registers cars rolling over it — keeps breaking, the mayor said.
License scanners would let Tybee provide Toma with information the hose-like counters don't: how long a car stays on the island, and the state and county where it's registered.
That could help Tybee fine-tune its tourism marketing. Buelterman said it would also help the island get funding for beach projects from federal, state and county governments. The biggest need is money to replace sand washed away by beach erosion. Buelterman expects Tybee's next beach renourishment project will cost up to $19 million.
"We have to go out and aggressively make the case to people why it makes sense for the state of Georgia to help fund the beach renourishment," Buelterman said.
Toma, who wants a year's worth of data for his study, said any information he receives from the scanners would be "very, very generic with as little personal information as possible."
Police won't be allowed to use car tag information until the City Council approves a policy specifying who would have access to the data, how it would be used and how long information would be kept. However, the mayor acknowledged police would probably be responsible for filtering the data for Toma's study.
John Bremer, who commutes daily from his Tybee home to a job on the mainland, said he's opposed to scanners on the island. "Do we really need to run everybody's tag that comes on and off this island? Is that where we're headed as a society?" Bremer said. "The chances for abuse are so extensive."
Tybee's council next meets Dec. 12, when the police chief is expected to outline his proposal for scanner use. The mayor said that based on the negative phone calls and emails council members are receiving, he suspects they'll be reluctant to approve any use for law enforcement purposes.
Asked when the cameras would be installed, Buelterman said he wasn't sure.
"We may reconsider the whole thing," he said.