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License plate scanning casts a big shadow

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Wednesday’s announcement that the Department of Homeland Security was cancelling a plan to develop a national license plate tracking system came as welcome news to privacy advocates. But the reality behind this issue is that cities and counties across the country continue to gather staggering numbers of license plate photos every day and are storing them for lengthy periods of time. Despite the lack of a national system, the truth is that if the federal government wants license plate data these days, all they have to do is ask.

Using readily available cameras and automated scanners, police departments have been gathering license plate data in their local communities for many years now. The cameras are either mounted on busy streets and highways, or placed on police cruisers. And it’s not just the image that’s captured either. The time and precise location are logged as well, information which is then attached to a record of the vehicle and updated as new data comes in.

We’re not talking about a small amount of information. Cheaper, faster cameras have made it much easier to capture license plate data. In the state of Maryland alone, license plate scanning technology recorded the locations of vehicle plates 85 million times over the course of only one year. And in Boston, only four scanner equipped cars can capture and store over 3,500 plates per day.

This is the kind of wholesale electronic information gathering that has caught the attention of groups such as the ACLU. The privacy watchdog compiled a report last year that is the most comprehensive study so far on the subject of license plate scanning.

Based on the over 26,000 pages of documents the ACLU received from law enforcement agencies, the group found that the use of the scanners has grown dramatically in the past three years, to the point where even the smallest communities are using them. In Milpitas, California, a town of 68,000 residents located in Silicon Valley, the local police department has already amassed a database of nearly 5 million scans.

The ACLU report includes an interactive map where users can click on any state and find the complete files received for the communities surveyed.

There is also a school of thought that highlights the obvious benefits for being able to track the movements of so many cars in, around, and through a community. Police departments who use the scanners report dramatic improvements in locating stolen cars, parking ticket evaders, missing persons, and people with active warrants. In cases of domestic terrorism, this kind of information could also be enormously helpful.

Then there is the example of Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. His government-owned car was spotted and logged by city cameras 41 times over a nine month period. The data was stored and made public in response to a newspaper’s public records request after one of their reporters had his movements tracked earlier by the city.

Meanwhile the technology companies which make the license plate scanning equipment find themselves in a boom cycle they are more than happy to see continue. A recent independent market research report predicts at least 14 percent growth for companies who operate in the plate recognition space this year. Some of the key players are companies such as Vigilant Solutions, Elsag North America, and NDI Recognitions Systems.

The debate over the merits or negatives about the use of license plate scanning technology is not going away. Privacy advocates and law enforcement agencies have made their opposing views clear.

In the small community of San Leandro, California, one law-abiding local citizen requested his license plate records and was astounded to find that he and members of his family had been photographed almost weekly for nearly two years. Not long after getting his records, the city police arrested a Las Vegas man wanted for homicide who just happened to be driving through town and was spotted by a scanner. When you cast a wide technology net looking for “bad” fish driving cars, everyone else has to come along for the ride.

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