Your car isn't your castle: More plates get caught on camera
WASHINGTON — You can drive, but you can't hide.
A rapidly growing network of police cameras is capturing, storing and sharing data on license plates, making it possible to stitch together people's movements whether they are stuck in a commute, making tracks to the beach or up to no good.
For the first time, the number of license tag captures has reached the millions, according to a study published Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union based on information from hundreds of law enforcement agencies. Departments keep the records for weeks or years, sometimes indefinitely, saying they can be crucial in tracking suspicious cars, aiding drug busts, finding abducted children and more.
Attached to police cars, bridges or buildings — and sometimes merely as an app on a police officer's smartphone — scanners capture images of passing or parked vehicles and pinpoint their locations, uploading that information into police databases.
Over time, it's unlikely many vehicles escape notice. And with some of the information going into regional databases encompassing multiple jurisdictions, it's becoming easier to build a record of where someone has been and when, over a large area.
While the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that a judge's approval is needed to use GPS to track a car, networks of plate scanners allow police effectively to track a driver's location, sometimes several times every day, with few legal restrictions. The ACLU says the scanners are assembling a “single, high-resolution image of our lives.”
“There's just a fundamental question of whether we're going to live in a society where these dragnet surveillance systems become routine,” said Catherine Crump, a staff attorney with the organization. The group is proposing that police departments immediately delete any records of cars not linked to any crime.
Although less thorough than GPS tracking, plate readers can produce some of the same information, the group says, revealing whether someone is frequenting a bar, joining a protest, getting medical or mental help, being unfaithful to a spouse and much more.
In Minneapolis, for example, eight mobile and two fixed cameras captured data on 4.9 million license plates from January to August 2012, the Star Tribune reported. Among those whose movements were recorded: Mayor R.T. Rybak, whose city-owned cars were tracked at 41 locations in a year.
As the technology becomes cheaper and more widespread, even small police agencies are able to deploy more sophisticated surveillance systems. The federal government has been a willing partner, offering grants to help equip departments.
The records add up quickly. In Jersey City, N.J., for example, the population is 250,000, but the city collected more than 2 million plate images in a year. Because the city keeps records for five years, the ACLU estimates that it has about 10 million on file, making it possible for police to plot the movements of most residents.
The ACLU study found that license plate scanners produced a small fraction of “hits,” or alerts that a suspicious vehicle had been found.
In Maryland, for example, the state reported reading about 29 million plates between January and May of last year. Of that number, about 60,000 — or about 1 in every 500 license plates — were suspicious. The main offenses: a suspended or revoked registration or a violation of the state's emissions inspection program. That accounted for 97 percent of alerts.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Gay couple receives marriage license from controversial Ky. clerk’s office
- More Hillary emails have parts blocked, ruled classified
- Senate Dems get 34th vote to hand Obama victory on Iran deal
- Virginia cop indicted in man’s slaying
- Kentucky county clerk Davis jailed for stand on same-sex marriage licenses
- 9 military labs halted amid fears over toxins
- Warrant required to track cellphones, Justice Department’s new policy states
- Gitmo terror recidivism rate increases
- Former Corinthian College students seek relief
- Clinton aides pressed former State worker Pagliano to testify on use of email
- Video may provide clues in manhunt for officer’s killers in Illinois