Fri, Jul 19, 2013 - Page 7 News List

US records vehicle movements

BIG BROTHER?Millions of vehicle license plates are tagged every day, a civil liberties group says, allowing police to track a driver’s location and keep the records for years

AP, WASHINGTON

Law enforcement agencies across the US have amassed millions of digital records on the location and movement of every vehicle with a license plate, according to a study by a prominent civil rights organization.

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 the study published on Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) 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 — automated scanners capture images of passing or parked vehicles and pinpoint their locations, uploading that information into police databases.

Over time, it is unlikely that many vehicles in a covered area escape notice. With some of the information going into regional databases encompassing multiple jurisdictions, it is becoming easier to build a record of where someone has been and when, over a large area.

While the Supreme Court ruled last year 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 union 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 last year, the Star Tribune reported. Among those whose movements were recorded was Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, whose city-owned cars were tracked at 41 locations in a year.

A Star Tribune reporter’s vehicle was tracked seven times in a year, placing him at a friend’s house three times late at night, other times going to and from work — forming a picture of the dates, times and coordinates of his daily routine. Until the city temporarily classified such data late last year, anyone could ask police for a list of when and where a car had been spotted.

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, in part as a tool against terrorism.

Law enforcement officials say the scanners are strikingly efficient. The state of Maryland told the ACLU that troopers could “maintain a normal patrol stance” while capturing up to 7,000 license plate images in a single eight-hour shift.

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