License Plate Cameras Track Millions In U.S.

License plate camera readers are building a database on the movements of millions of Americans that can be traced and stored over months and even years.

Highway surveillance has become more sophisticated on America’s roadways. According to an article in the Washington Post, license plate camera readers, devices typically mounted along major roadways and on police cruisers and government vehicles, are building a database on the movements of millions of Americans that can be traced and stored over months and even years. With these readers, any vehicle, on the road or parked, can be identified almost instantly and compared against “hot lists” of vehicles that have been stolen or involved in crimes. But because most Americans aren’t car thieves or criminals, the readers, and especially the gathering of the database of information, is a concern to those who argue the issue of privacy.

Time and location information are gathered in these databases that can be searched by law enforcement or anyone who has access to the relatively inexpensive camera readers. And while some departments purge information after a few weeks or a few months, some seemingly never get rid of any of it. Privacy advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are calling on lawmakers to limit the devices and their capabilities, arguing that the accumulation of the data could be seriously misused and abused and put free speech and association in danger. ACLU also did a partial-year analysis of the license-plate data collected in Maryland and found that about one in 500 license plates registered a hit on the “hot list” and a majority of the associated offenses were minor, such as lapsed
registrations or lack of emission-control compliance. It concluded that the data collection is unnecessarily broad and is not appropriate.

Those who defend the readers have a much different take on the situation. In Washington, D.C. for example, over 250 license-plate reader cameras, separate from those used for surveillance and detection of red-light running and speeding, capture 1,800 images a minute and can download the information into a rapidly expanding archive that can locate people’s movements all over town. These readers have been credited with pinpointing the location of and capture of stolen cars and fleeing criminals in a very short period of time. Law enforcement says the readers can give them a critical jump on devastating crimes like child abduction, assault and murder by having information about when a vehicle left or entered a crime scene. And the ability to quickly identify a suspected terrorist’s vehicle as it speeds along a highway perhaps intent on getting to a target, is rapidly becoming a necessity. Officials also say that the data collected is destroyed after two years unless needed for ongoing litigation.

Law enforcement sees potential in the technology, citing the 2002 sniper shootings in the D.C. area as an example of how the camera-readers could have been used to great effect. The police could have checked whether any particular car was showing up at each of the shooting sites and might have stopped the attacks sooner.

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