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State bill would restrict data from license-plate scanners

A state lawmaker representing Silicon Valley wants to rein in a cutting-edge law enforcement technology that enables police to stockpile digital personal information on motorists and build a portrait of their whereabouts.

Agencies across the nation are swiftly adopting the use of license-plate recognition devices, which are affixed to the outside of their patrol cars and scan passing vehicles. The tags are automatically compared with databases of outstanding warrants, stolen cars and more.

Each scan captures and stores an array of data, regardless of whether the driver is a wanted criminal, including the geographic location of the car along with the date and time of the scan. Privacy advocates are alarmed that the technology could allow police to paint a picture of where innocent Americans have been and when. 

 

Police counter that license-plate scanners allow them to track down wanted criminals and stop perpetrators on the street by way of an in-car alert without having to manually search each tag. Investigators also can search where a license plate has been scanned previously and go back to see if the person is at that location.

State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, has proposed a bill that would require local law enforcement agencies in California to retain data captured by license-plate scanners for only 60 days, except when the information is being used in felony investigations. Such rules already exist for the California Highway Patrol.

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report

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Private company hoarding license-plate data on US drivers

Capitalizing on one of the fastest-growing trends in law enforcement, a private California-based company has compiled a database bulging with more than 550 million license-plate records on both innocent and criminal drivers that can be searched by police.

The technology has raised alarms among civil libertarians, who say it threatens the privacy of drivers. It’s also evidence that 21st-century technology may be evolving too quickly for the courts and public opinion to keep up. The U.S. Supreme Court is only now addressing whether investigators can secretly attach a GPS monitoring device to cars without a warrant.

A ruling in that case has yet to be handed down, but a telling exchange occurred during oral arguments. Chief Justice John Roberts asked lawyers for the government if even he and other members of the court could feasibly be tracked by GPS without a warrant. Yes, came the answer. 

Meanwhile, police around the country have been affixing high-tech scanners to the exterior of their patrol cars, snapping a picture of every passing license plate and automatically comparing them to databases of outstanding warrants, stolen cars and wanted bank robbers.

 

The units work by sounding an in-car alert if the scanner comes across a license plate of interest to police, whereas before, patrol officers generally needed some reason to take an interest in the vehicle, like a traffic violation.

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report

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