Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Millions of U.S. license plates tracked and stored - and it's not just government agencies


Millions of U.S. license plates tracked and stored - and it's not just

government agencies

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

officer's imagination".


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. C Guardian News and Media 2013



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