License plate readers began as a way for police to more quickly search for stolen vehicles and wanted individuals from vehicles spotted near the vicinity of a crime. (Source: CBS 5 News)
Privacy advocates are becoming increasingly concerned, however, because all the photographs taken by the license plate scanning cameras are uploaded and saved to computer servers. (Source: CBS 5 News)
PHOENIX (CBS5) -
New technology used by police agencies to quickly scan license plates leaves the door open for people's movements to be pieced together and tracked.
The software is growing in popularity, and is being utilized by law enforcement nationwide.
"They're tracking everyone who drives by. And they can track thousands of license plates per minute," says Anjali Abraham with the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.
License plate readers began as a way for police to more quickly search for stolen vehicles and wanted individuals from vehicles spotted near the vicinity of a crime.
A stealthily mounted camera on a patrol car scans and photographs all license plates within its field of vision. That photograph is then decoded and fed into a computer system to see if the license plate generates a "hit" that the vehicle may be connected to a crime.
Privacy advocates are becoming increasingly concerned, however, because all the photographs taken by the license plate scanning cameras are uploaded and saved to computer servers. Those pictures, in some cases, contain the GPS coordinates of where the snapshot was captured. Additionally, if the camera angle is a wider shot than the license plate, people near the vehicle are being captured on camera as well.
The ACLU of Arizona filed a number of public records requests with Valley police agencies to find out more about the license plate scanning software and how it is being utilized.
Phoenix police report having around two million photographs in a database where they will stay for seven years after they are taken.
"The tracking of people's private movements and private activities is a serious invasion of our privacy rights," says Abraham. "Maybe you're going somewhere that you don't want the government knowing about. Maybe you're not. But the choice should be yours to decide whether or not your private information stays private."
The ACLU of Arizona plans to encourage local law enforcement to implement policies that would soundly protect the privacy of law-abiding citizens whose license plates are being photographed.
The group can do little, however, about the proliferation of similar software now being utilized increasingly by commercial entities.
Companies are now offering their clients access to a privately managed database that claims to have more than one billion vehicle sightings.
Realizing that the information could be used for nefarious purposes if it were to fall into the wrong hands, representatives with the online investigative systems company TLO say access to the system is extremely limited.
"We do not offer our services to consumers. We have an extremely rigid vetting process that entities must go through to gain access to the system," says Senior TLO Vice President James Reilly.
Reilly says the Vehicle Sighting database is not marketed as a standalone investigative tool, but is a component of its TLOxp product.
"(TLOxp is for) law enforcement, investigation within the insurance and financial sectors, corporate risk assessment fraud and risk security, et cetera," said Reilly.
Reilly says the database TLO uses for the license plate records does not come from law enforcement records.
A private company makes that information available to TLO by collecting license plate photographs on its own, from cameras placed on other vehicles, at intersections, on overpasses and other locations, similar to the Google Street View program.
Copyright 2013 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.
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