You're not only being watched, but where you go is being stored for use against you
August 06, 2013The Washington Police Department uses automated license plate readers. You've probably seen them, whether you knew what they were or not. It's a camera mounted on the trunk of the police cruiser. Officials claim the camera/computer make law enforcement more efficient. Privacy advocates claim they are just another example of Big Brother not only watching, but also keeping records, of what innocent Americans are doing. Just in case. Just in case they might decide they need the information to make a case against someone.
An article published in the Seattle Times Sunday (8-4-13) explains how these things work and some of the issues they raise:
Cregan Newhouse patrols the streets of Seattle, chasing license plates. Click here to go to the original source to read the rest of the story.
Mounted atop his Parking Enforcement minivan sit three cameras, capturing every plate he passes and instantly checking them against a database of stolen cars and unpaid tickets.
On this cloudy afternoon, he finds just two stolen cars and no chronic parking offenders, a smaller haul than usual.
But his work does not go to waste. The thousands of photos are entered into a Seattle Police Department database where, for the three months before they are destroyed, they'll be available for use in criminal investigations.
To public officials, it is an innovative and effective multipurpose policing tool.
To skeptics, it is yet another way in which Big Brother is watching.
Automatic license-plate readers have been in the arsenal of large police departments for nearly a decade, but are now getting new scrutiny amid broader concerns about government surveillance.
The SPD is one of many state law-enforcement agencies that use the readers, including several in King County.
Even suburban Beaux Arts Village, population 299, is considering them.
In Seattle, which piloted the technology in 2006, public records indicate 12 police units collected about 7 million license-plate records last year, identifying 426 stolen cars and 3,768 vehicles with at least four unpaid parking tickets.
"This is something that is working," SPD spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said. "It's technology that makes law enforcement more efficient."
Still, critics say the technology remains largely unregulated despite its increased use. They say the database allows police, if they search by license plate, to access where and when everyday citizens have been seen.
Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union published a report on license-plate readers called simply "You Are Being Tracked."
"These devices got rolled out, thrown out there without any real thinking or policies, and it opened up a new world of concerns," said Jamela Debelak of the ACLU's Washington state branch.
Retention a concern
Debelak said the group is particularly concerned about the practice of retaining license-plate records for long periods of time and allowing officers to use them for investigations.
SPD officials say they keep the records for 90 days, in part to allow for parking offenders identified by the cameras to appeal.
The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs recommends 60-day retention.
Most police agencies in the state retain them for either 60 or 90 days, but there are exceptions. Tacoma says it doesn't retain any records. Vancouver says it does for a year.
Seattle officials say they are especially sensitive because other proposals sparked concerns this year.
Mayor Mike McGinn ordered the SPD to ground its drone program in February, and the City Council voted the next month that more public input was needed before police activated cameras along the waterfront.
Ryan Calo, an assistant law professor at the University of Washington, said license-plate readers may be the biggest issue of all because they can randomly travel around the entire city, collecting information and storing it.
"This use of license-plate scanning differs from the way police contemplate using drones, and in many ways it's probably worse," Calo said. "This is more general, retroactive technology. They're just driving around."