Millions of U.S. license plates tracked and stored - and it's not just
By Ed Pilkington, The Guardian
Wednesday, July 17, 2013 10:40 EDT
Alarming number of databases across US are storing details of Americans'
locations - not just government agencies
Millions of Americans are having their movements tracked through automated
scanning of their car license plates, with the records held often
indefinitely in vast government and private databases.
A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union has found an alarming
proliferation of databases across the US storing details of Americans'
locations. The technology is not confined to government agencies - private
companies are also getting in on the act, with one firm National Vehicle
Location Service holding more than 800m records of scanned license plates.
"License plate readers are the most pervasive method of location tracking
that nobody has heard of," said Catherine Crump, ACLU lawyer and lead author
of the report. "They collect data on millions of Americans, the overwhelming
number of whom are entirely innocent of any wrongdoing."
Crump said that the creeping growth of licence plate scanners echoed the
debate over the National Security Agency. "It raises the same question as
the NSA controversy: do we want to live in a world where the government
makes a record of everything we do - because that's what's being created by
the growth of databases linked to license plate readers."
ACLU based their research on the results of freedom of information requests
to 300 police departments and other agencies nationwide that generated
26,000 pages of documents. The mountain of training materials, internal
memos and policy statements retrieved by the group has opened a door on a
previously little understood world.
Crump said that it's impossible to put a figure on the scale of the license
plate scanning phenomenon as information still remains patchy. But what is
clear is that by using scanners mounted on police patrol cars, on road signs
and bridges and outside public buildings such as libraries and schools,
databases are now storing millions of data points.
Typically, the systems collect photographs, license plate numbers, as well
as the date, time and location where the vehicle was seen. What is of
concern to ACLU is the fact that the information gathering is indiscriminate
- it sucks in the details of all passing cars - and that the data is stored
with minimal safeguards and often for long periods or even forever.
"Even if licence plate reader data is not being misused already, we should
all be concerned about it lingering in government databases for years as we
never know how it will be used in future," Crump said.
The purpose of vehicle scanning is to provide law enforcers with an extra
tool in their search for criminals or stolen cars. Scanned data is checked
against "hot lists" of stolen vehicles, felony warrants, offenders on
probation and sex offenders, and when matches are achieved the authorities
are alerted to the "hits".
But ACLU's analysis of the information it gathered on the scanning systems
found that only a minuscule proportion of recorded licence plates were
related to any criminal or other law enforcement issue. In Maryland, some
29m license plates were recorded in 2012, but of those only 0.2% were "hits"
associated with crimes or other wrongdoings; and of that 0.2%, about 97%
were for a traffic misdemeanour or a violation of the state's vehicle
emissions rules. To express that another way, out of every 1m license plates
read in Maryland, only 47 were linked to more serious crime such as a wanted
suspect or terrorist organisation.
That would not matter so much were there proper controls in place for how to
store the data and for how long. But ACLU found that only five states have
introduced laws to govern these scanning devices, while at a local level
standards vary enormously across the country.
Some authorities such as Minnesota State Patrol delete all their scanned
records after 48 hours. Others are much looser in their regulations, such as
the town of Milpitas in California, population 67,000, which stores almost
5m plate reads with no time limits at all.
Many police authorities have few or no regulations over use of the scanners
other than that they should not be deployed to track people of personal
interest such as spouses or friends. Pittsburg police department in
California stated on the documents submitted to ACLU that the scanners can
be used for "any routine patrol operation or criminal investigation -
reasonable suspicion or probably cause is not required". The police
department in Scarsdale New York was glowing about the potential of the
technology, saying the scanners had potential that "is only limited by the
In New York city, the NYPD used license plate readers as part of their
controversial monitoring of mosques in the wake of 9/11, according to an
investigation by Associated Press .
Mike Katz-Lacab from San Leandro, California, became curious about the use
of license plate scanners after he heard that his town's police department
was investing in a system. In 2010 he submitted requests for information on
the data stored on him and was astonished that over a two-year period some
112 images had been gathered and held on him, including pictures of his two
cars in front of his house, friends' houses, the local library and so on.
One captured image showed Katz-Lacab and his daughters getting out of the
car. "I was amazed by how much information they had gathered on me over a
short period of time."
The police force has recently introduce a one-year limit on storing the
data, but he thinks that's still too long. "People should be concerned about
this for so many reasons: maybe they visit an abortion clinic, or have
sensitive medical treatment, or attend a political demonstration - all those
movements can be gleaned from this kind of data," he said.
guardian.co.uk C Guardian News and Media 2013
(F)AIR USE NOTICE: All original content and/or articles and graphics in this
message are copyrighted, unless specifically noted otherwise. All rights to
these copyrighted items are reserved. Articles and graphics have been placed
within for educational and discussion purposes only, in compliance with
"Fair Use" criteria established in Section 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976.
The principle of "Fair Use" was established as law by Section 107 of The
Copyright Act of 1976. "Fair Use" legally eliminates the need to obtain
permission or pay royalties for the use of previously copyrighted materials
if the purposes of display include "criticism, comment, news reporting,
teaching, scholarship, and research." Section 107 establishes four criteria
for determining whether the use of a work in any particular case qualifies
as a "fair use". A work used does not necessarily have to satisfy all four
criteria to qualify as an instance of "fair use". Rather, "fair use" is
determined by the overall extent to which the cited work does or does not
substantially satisfy the criteria in their totality. If you wish to use
copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use,' you
must obtain permission from the copyright owner. For more information go to:
THIS DOCUMENT MAY CONTAIN COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL. COPYING AND DISSEMINATION IS
PROHIBITED WITHOUT PERMISSION OF THE COPYRIGHT OWNERS.