According the Center for Investigative Reporting:
When the city of San Leandro, Calif., purchased a license-plate reader for its police department in 2008, computer security consultant Michael Katz-Lacabe asked the city for a record of every time the scanners had photographed his car.
The results shocked him.
The paperback-size device, installed on the outside of police cars, can log thousands of license plates in an eight-hour patrol shift. Katz-Lacabe said it had photographed his two cars on 112 occasions, including one image from 2009 that shows him and his daughters stepping out of his Toyota Prius in their driveway.
The article continues:
A year ago, the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center – one of dozens of law enforcement intelligence-sharing centers set up after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 – signed a $340,000 agreement with the Silicon Valley firm Palantir to construct a database of license-plate records flowing in from police using the devices across 14 counties, documents and interviews show.
The extent of the center’s data collection has never been revealed. Neither has the involvement of Palantir, a Silicon Valley firm with extensive ties to the Pentagon and intelligence agencies. The CIA’s venture capital fund, In-Q-Tel, has invested $2 million in the firm… According to contract documents, the database will be capable of handling at least 100 million records and be accessible to local and state law enforcement across the region…
License-plate readers are not subject to the same legal restrictions as GPS devices that can be used to track an individual’s movements. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously last year that lengthy GPS tracking constitutes a Fourth Amendment search and may require a warrant.
But plate readers might not fall under such rulings if police successfully argue that motorists have no “reasonable expectation of privacy” while driving on public roads.
It’s not only happening in California.
From the ACLU website:
In July 2012, American Civil Liberties Union affiliates in 38 states and Washington, D.C. sent 587 requests to local police departments and state agencies that demand information on how they use automatic license plate readers (ALPR) to track and record Americans’ movements.
Their report confirms my suspicions about local intersection cameras:
ALPRs are cameras mounted on stationary objects (telephone poles, the underside of bridges, etc.) or on patrol cars. The cameras snap a photograph of every license plate that passes them by – capturing information on up to thousands of cars per minute. The devices convert each license plate number into machine-readable text and check them against agency-selected databases or manually-entered license plate numbers, providing an alert to a patrol officer whenever a match or “hit” appears.
When the ALPR system captures an image of a car, it also meta-tags each file with the GPS location and the time and date showing where and when the photograph was snapped. And often, the photograph—not just the plate number—is also stored. The system gathers this information on every car it comes in contact with, not simply those to which some flag or “hit” was attached.
…law enforcement agencies are increasingly moving towards a “keep everything, share widely” formula concerning ALPR data. The biggest problem with ALPR systems is the creation of databases with location information on every motorist who encounters the system, not just those whom the government suspects of criminal activity. Police departments nationwide are using ALPR to quietly accumulate millions of plate records, storing them in backend databases. While we don’t know the full extent of this problem, we know that responsible deletion of data is the exception, not the norm. Only two states have passed legislation barring the retention of “non-hit” plate data for extended periods. On the other hand, we know for certain that some departments are eagerly engaging in this surreptitious data collection.
As license plate location data accumulates, the system ceases to be simply a mechanism enabling efficient police work and becomes a warrantless tracking tool, enabling retroactive surveillance of millions of people.
Location information can reveal deeply sensitive and intimate details of our lives. As the International Association of Chiefs of Police has put it, “mobile LPR cameras may collect the license plate numbers of vehicles parked at locations that, even though public, might be considered sensitive, such as doctor’ offices, clinics, churches, and addiction counseling meetings, among others.”
From a website that sells the equipment:
Cameras, a processing unit and proprietary software, allow officers to capture images of license plates and instantaneously compare them with millions of Hot List records to identify vehicles of interest. This highly advanced Automatic License Plate Reader system reads plates day or night, from all 50 States and most foreign countries including Arabic characters. It can also read other alpha-numeric identification systems—even from 1500 feet in the air…CarSystem 6 can also be installed on a fixed camera and reviewed remotely.
The MPH-900 ALPR’s digital cameras see more than analog cameras do. Compared to the analog cameras used by all other ALPR systems, images taken by the MPH-900’s digital cameras capture nearly twice the physical area—the sweet spot—and that means more information for law enforcement. While images taken with analog cameras show little more than the license plate, MPH-900 ALPR cameras show the plate, a significant portion of the car and part of the car’s surroundings—day or night and in any weather. This visual information can greatly aid investigations.
Our advanced License Plate Reader system:
- Captures up to 1,800 license plate reads per minute, day or night, accurately recognizing plates from all 50 states, Canada, Mexico and many Arabic characters
- Processes parked and moving vehicles across up to 4 lanes of traffic, day or night, in any weather
- Transit speed up to150mph (241kph) can be easily managed by our License Plate Reader system. It exceeds the normal speed of vehicles through the pathway (due to pathway infrastructure limitations)
- Allows officers to update “Hot Lists” manually at any time and also query them for new tags that may match a recently captured vehicle
- Alerts officers within milliseconds if a vehicle is suspect
- The ALPR translates a digital image into data, checks the information against an onboard hot list, and returns an alarm back to the operator in milliseconds for appropriate interdiction
- Hot Lists can be updated manually or wirelessly
- Officers can search ALPR system for previous reads at any time in reaction to notification of a suspect vehicle.
The MPH-900 captures thousands of license plates during a shift. Data recorded for each includes date and time stamp, photo of the vehicle and its immediate area, and GPS coordinates. After –action analysis of this data from relevant periods of time can lead to:
- Witness identification
- Watch List development
- Placing suspect at a scene
- Terrorist interdiction
- Pattern recognition
It’s not only the police. From Repo Times:
The repossession service version of the automatic license plate scanner works as follows. The automatic license plate scanner is hooked up to a tow truck. As the truck drives through the hood at night, the truck is making note of every license plate that it drives by and reads. The computer stores the license plate number, the date, time, and GPS coordinates for every vehicle that your repossession truck drives by. You can manually enter license plate information into the computer’s hot sheet. If you happen to drive by one of the license plates on your trucks hot sheet, the computer will notify you to repossess the black Lexus you just passed by and the license plate that is on it.
You can also search the data your repossession trucks have stored by entering a license plate from a new repossession order. If your trucks have seen the plate you will get a printout showing the date, time, and GPS coordinates for every time your repossession truck has seen that plate.
Police departments and national intelligence agencies are likely overjoyed that information is being gathered by the private sector. See my previous post on private security camera data.
License plate readers have been around at least since 2006, according to CBS New York.
The CBS article states that besides being a big money-maker, the devices “have tremendous crime-fighting and anti-terror potential.” Great. Don’t forget who it is that the federal government considers terrorists – those who disagree with its policies. It’s everyone from people who reference the Bible or Constitution to those in the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Someone in the article said there’s nothing to worry about if you don’t do anything wrong. Unfortunately, that’s just no longer the case.
UPDATE: Just saw this from Pakalert Press: FBI Document—“[DELETED]” Plots to Kill Occupy Leaders “If Deemed Necessary”