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Sunday, November 27, 2011

DC Police Building Biggest Location Database Based on Licence Plates

Police Tracking Your Every Move With License Plate Readers

Police Tracking Your Every Move With License Plate Readers
Josh Wolford | Staff Writer

Is a law enforcement aid worth sacrificing personal liberties?

Privacy. It's on everyone's minds these days. A couple of months ago it was Apple and Google that were drawing the ire of consumers with the storing of location data. And of course, Facebook is always mentioned when people discuss their concerns about online privacy. But as technology gets better, and the tools used to capture information and the databases used to store and disseminate the information become more capable, the lines between online and offline privacy continue to blur.

On that note, let's say that you are having a Sunday afternoon picnic with your child. The weather's good, you've been running around and playing -- but now it's time for lunch. You open up the cooler, only to discover that you've left a couple of the sandwiches in the car. The car's just a few yards away, so you quickly run to grab the sandwiches.

And in a split second, you look back to see that your child is gone. You catch a black sedan speeding away and you are barely able to catch the license plate. Because you caught that license plate, police are able to search a giant database of plate captures and track the movements of the kidnapper.

A classic question: What is more important, public safety or personal freedom? What are you willing to sacrifice? Let us know in the comments.

Ok, I know this whole scenario seems a little bit Without A Trace or Lifetime movie-esque, but the point is that police were able to use an ever-expanding database of data culled from license plate snapshots in order to generate real-time location information. That's a reality, and it's happening in our nation's capital, among other places.

The Washington Post is reporting that police in D.C. are beefing up the area covered by license plate cameras. More than 250 cameras in D.C. and its suburbs are constantly hard at work, grabbing license plate numbers and sticking them into databases. The police aren't exactly doing this quietly, but it's being done with "virtually no public debate."

The highest concentration of these plate readers in the entire nation exists in D.C. (one reader per square mile), so that means that District police are building the biggest location database based on license plates in the whole country.

Let's take a brief look at these license plate readers.

First, these are apparently different types of cameras than the cameras cities have been affixing near stoplights and other places to catch people running red lights or speeding -- the "here's a ticket 2 weeks later in the mail" cameras.

These plate readers cost about $20,000 each and can snatch images of numbers and letters on cars traveling nearly 150 mph and across four lanes of traffic. These plate readers in D.C. take 1,800 images per minute, every one of which is stored in a database.

Basically, these plate readers have made it possible for police to track everyone's movements as they move across the city.

These plate readers and the subsequent database of image captures has tipped the privacy concerns of some -- notably the American Civil Liberties Union. One of their main concerns is naturally the privacy implications.

In the District, laws are in place that limit the amount of time that surveillance camera footage can be kept. The images must be dumped after 10 days, unless there is an actual investigatory reason to keep them. But right now, there is nothing keeping data from the plate readers from being stored for years.

The ACLU says that this database is storing the location data of innocent people. And they are right. The plate readers are casting an all-inclusive net, grabbing license plate numbers indiscriminately.

Clearly this technology is rapidly approaching the point where it could be used to reconstruct the entire movements of any individual vehicle. As we have argued in the context of GPS tracking that level of intrusion on private life is something that the police should not be able to engage in without a warrant.