President Barack Obama held a news conference a week ago to address the public outcry over the government's recently revealed surveillance of millions of Americans' phone and Internet communications.

The National Security Agency said its programs, shrouded in secrecy, are needed to protect the country from terrorists, and policies are in place to protect the privacy of law-abiding citizens.

Yet even the president acknowledged more needs to be done to assure the public.

"It's not enough for me, as president, to have confidence in these programs," he said. "The American people need to have confidence in them as well."

It's a delicate balancing act, appeasing a people who fiercely guard their privacy but who also see the need to use every tool available to keep them safe.

This a public conversation that should have happened before the programs began, but at least it's happening now.

We should be having a similar discussion here in York City as the police department uses its new license plate scanners.

Similar to the NSA programs, the scanners are capable of recording the activities of all law-abiding residents and visitors in hopes of hitting on a few suspects.

Cameras mounted on police cars snap photos of nearby license plates, comparing them to two databases and alerting the officer when there's a match. The databases include warrant information from both the state police and York County.


The technology can help recover stolen vehicles, find people with outstanding warrants and locate vehicles associated with an Amber Alert or a dangerous suspect, to name a few of its uses.

However, it also could be used to track the every-day movements of people who haven't done a thing wrong.

York City Police officers began using the cameras May 1 and by Aug. 6 had recorded photos of 392,592 license plates in York City, according to Chief Wes Kahley, who said the department will keep the images for 90 days before deleting them.

The American Civil Liberties Union isn't opposed to the use of such scanners in the course of every-day policing.

"Our problem is this secondary use of the technology for intelligence gathering," said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty program at the ACLU of Massachusetts.

She said there might be legitimate reasons for a department to keep the images for a day or two, but 90 days is excessive.

"It allows retroactive surveillance," said Manuel Gomez, a Libertarian candidate for the York City Council. "Anybody would be concerned with the fact that somebody is keeping a 90-day record of their travels."

As with the NSA programs, the problem is not so much with what's obviously a useful tool, but rather with the secrecy surrounding how that tool is used.

We only know about the 90-day rule because Kahley told us. However, the chief has refused to release the department's policy regulating officers' use of the cameras.

That has us -- and several city council members -- concerned.

"Unlike an internal policy on use of force that may put the police at a disadvantage if a criminal knew what they were going to do and how far they could push the police, this is an activity that is surveillance of every citizen in York," Councilman Michael Helfrich said. "And I believe that if every citizen and visitor is subjected to this information-gathering, the citizens should be able to review the policy that oversees the surveillance."

We agree.

If the police department is going to use extraordinary crime-fighting measures that potentially infringe on the rights of law-abiding citizens, it needs to be extraordinarily transparent.