Cops Are Building Massive Databases With License Plate ReadersS

The next time you see your friendly neighborhood police officer, state trooper or sheriff's deputy out on patrol in your neighborhood, note that they may not just be on the lookout for crime: they could also be gathering data from your license plate.

The Center for Investigative Reporting has a new story that details just how prevalent so-called license plate readers are becoming among law enforcement officers in California. The book-sized devices "can log thousands of license plates in an eight-hour patrol shift," the story says. At least 32 agencies in the Bay Area use them, as do multiple other cities and counties in Northern California.

So how is this different from the statewide database that already lists who has what plate? Because it's being gathered up by the officers themselves, and then fed to regional "fusion centers" designed to share information with fellow local, state and federal authorities.

This has led to concerns among some that "the government is collecting huge amounts of data on people who have done nothing wrong," the story says. The information gets rather detailed, and some are worried that the technology allows police to track people.

[San Leandro resident Michael] Katz-Lacabe, who was featured in a Wall Street Journal story last year, said he believes the records of his movements are too revealing for someone who has done nothing wrong. With the technology, he said, “you can tell who your friends are, who you hang out with, where you go to church, whether you’ve been to a political meeting.”

[...] In San Diego, 13 federal and local law enforcement agencies have compiled more than 36 million license-plate scans in a regional database since 2010 with the help of federal homeland security grants. The San Diego Association of Governments maintains the database. Unlike the Northern California database, which retains the data for between one and two years, the San Diego system retains license-plate information indefinitely.

“License-plate data is clearly identifiable to specific individuals,” said Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “This is like having your barcode tracked.”

Kind of scary, right? But maybe not all that surprising given the recent revelations of just how prevalent our domestic surveillance apparatus has become in recent years. In fact, Palantir, one of the startup companies linked to the PRISM scandal, constructed the license plate data for the the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center.

What's worse, few restrictions exist on the license plate readers. They don't require warrants to use like GPS trackers do, and a bill that would have forced police to delete the data after 60 days died in the state legislature, the story says.

Personally, I have issues with any kind of program that treats people like potential criminals — it's so against the traditional spirit of American criminal law that it's not even funny. And as Jack Baruth over at TTAC says, there could be much better uses for this technology, like studying traffic flow and things like that. But no, it's being used to surveil us all.

Sadly, it may be something we just have to get used to, especially if most Americans say they're cool with this kind of thing as long as it supposedly protects us from terrorist attacks.

Be sure and check out the full CIR report and let us know what you think in the comments.

Photo credit AP