Police Use License Plate Scanners to Profile Drivers in Private Database

Thursday, June 21, 2012

California drivers aren’t being paranoid if they feel they’re being watched and tracked. And photographed. And filed in a database that holds what amounts to a GPS record of their movements.

It is actually their license plates that are being photographed and filed . . . by police and private companies alike as part of a trend that is sweeping the nation. A private company sells license plate readers to law enforcement users and data from those scans is fed into a computer database. While the scan can instantaneously alert a police officer to a suspicious vehicle, patrol cars can also click away all day at even the most unassuming vehicle, compiling over time a profile of a vehicle’s movement.

Although the data has been found useful in reducing certain crimes, like vehicle theft, it opens a Pandora’s Box of privacy concerns that motivated state lawmakers in March to propose a bill that would restrict how personal information gained from the scanners can be collected and stored. SB 1330, introduced by Democratic state Senator Joe Simitian, was abandoned this month under pressure from lobbyists for law enforcement and private industry after emerging from committee and landing on the Senate floor.    

Interest in the legislation was sparked by a California Watch story published in January about Vigilant Video and its National Vehicle Location Service that has more than half a billion license-plate records on file. A single patrol car can photograph thousands of vehicles in a single shift. Around 1,200 new law-enforcement users a month sign up to access the system, which is offered free by Vigilant even to those agencies that neither buy their scanner nor contribute to the database.

Proponents of the system say it has been used to catch all manner of criminals and acts as a deterrent. Privacy experts point out that law-abiding people are having their movements tracked and stored without their permission for data mining purposes that have yet to be imagined.   

-Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Police, Lobbyists Defeat Bill to Limit License-Plate Scanners (by G.W. Schultz, California Watch)

Senate Bill 1330 (California Legislative Information) (pdf)

Private Company Hoarding License-Plate Data on US Drivers (by G.W. Schultz, California Watch)

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