Your car, tracked: The rapid rise of license plate readers

Tiburon, a tiny but wealthy town just northeast of the Golden Gate Bridge, has an uncommon distinction: it was one of the first towns in the country to mount automated license plate readers (LPRs) at its city borders—the only two roads going in and out of town. Properly, that means the cops are keeping an eye on each and every auto coming and going.

A contentious plan? Not in Tiburon, exactly where the city council approved the cameras unanimously back in November 2009.

The scanners can read 60 license plates per second, then match observed plates against a “hot list” of wanted vehicles, stolen cars, or criminal suspects. LPRs have increasingly become a mainstay of law enforcement nationwide numerous agencies tout them as a very efficient “force multiplier” for catching negative guys, most notably burglars, automobile thieves, kid molesters, kidnappers, terrorists, and—potentially—undocumented immigrants.

Today, tens of thousands of LPRs are getting employed by law enforcement agencies all over the country—practically each week, local media about the country report on some LPR expansion. But the system’s unchecked and largely unmonitored use raises significant privacy concerns. License plates, dates, times, and locations of all automobiles observed are kept in law enforcement databases for months or even years at a time. In the worst situation, the New York State Police keeps all of its LPR information indefinitely. No universal standard governs how long data can or should be retained.

Not surprisingly, the expanded use of LPRs has drawn the ire of privacy watchdogs. In late July 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union and its affiliates sent requests to regional police departments and state agencies across 38 states to request details on how LPRs are utilized.

As I headed into the picturesque town last month for a meeting with local police, I kept a lookout for the LPRs. Tiburon Boulevard, along the city’s southern coastal edge, is a lovely stretch of road overlooking a little bay that feeds into the San Francisco Bay. On summer season days, cyclists and runners take to a trail along the water’s edge. And It was there that I spotted the cameras, mounted on a traffic island just west of the intersection with Blackfield Drive.

Cameras point in every single direction of targeted traffic, each one trained on two lanes. The LPRs, with their sleek cylindrical design and style, look comparable to a surveillance camera or a speed camera. They provide no indication of what they do, nor would you know by looking that have become the newest object of contention in the lengthy-running war amongst “security” and “privacy.” But as I drove into town to interview Captain David Hutton and Chief Michael Cronin of the Tiburon Police Department, the cameras did their silent work: my plate was scanned, parsed, and logged in the name of security.

I met Capt. Hutton in a police conference space Chief Cronin, recovering at property after surgery, joined us by telephone. First, the officers made the case that LPRs really do give a lot more security to towns like Tiburon. After we hung up with Chief Cronin, Capt. Hutton obligingly showed me the database entries for my own arrival.

Four of Tiburon’s six LPRs are mounted on Tiburon Boulevard, close to Blackfield Drive.

Cyrus Farivar

Hitting the hot list

The whole LPR setup, such as the six new cameras, price $130,000. Funding came in part from the Marin County Sheriff’s Department and the adjacent City of Belvedere as a outcome, these other entities also get access to the Tiburon camera information.

The cameras run continually, seeking for hot listed plates. When they spot one, the system sends automated alerts directly to officers’ in-car and in-office computers and to the Marin County Sheriff’s communications desk (which does dispatching for Tiburon). The alerts offer a photo of the auto in query, the date, the time, and which certain camera spotted the vehicle.

Aid us watch the watchers

In the course of this story, Ars e-mailed the state law enforcement agencies of all 50 states to understand a lot more about how LPRs are utilised we received replies from just a handful. We followed up with FOIA and public data requests asking for LPR obtain orders, privacy guidelines, and other documents from ten state, ten neighborhood, and three federal agencies, which includes the FBI, the DEA, and Customs and Border Protection.

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