Last year the Minneapolis Star Tribune published an online map showing 34 locations around the city where Mayor R.T. Rybak’s car had been spotted during the previous 12 months. The newspaper’s goal wasn’t to spy on the mayor but to make a point: Such location data was publicly available for virtually any vehicle in the city, thanks to license plate scanners the Minneapolis Police Department uses to monitor traffic.
A wide majority of U.S. police departments now employ license plate readers—high-speed cameras mounted on police cars or at stationary roadside locations. Their primary purpose is to record visible plate numbers and check them against a “hot list” of vehicles stolen or used in crimes. But privacy advocates worry massive databases of plate records could be put to bad use.
A new report from the ACLU outlines the scale of plate record collection: Maryland, for instance, added more than 85 million license plate readings to a central database in 2012. Through May of that year, 99.8 percent of the records were not associated with any wrongdoing.
That may not be a problem if such databases are purged regularly. But the policies for retaining plate data or making it publicly accessible vary by jurisdiction. In Deerpark, N.Y., plate records are erased every 30 days. Plano County, Texas, stores plate location data for two years. Other jurisdictions hold them indefinitely.
Surveillance is a concern for all political stripes: Technology can be used for good or ill, and without appropriate policies in place, it may be a short skip to ill. The ACLU notes, “In New York City, police officers have reportedly driven unmarked vehicles equipped with license plate readers around local mosques in order to record each attendee. Police departments in other parts of the country could easily do the same thing to Tea Party groups, anti-abortion protesters, or the political opposition of a sheriff running for re-election.” The Scarsdale Police Department in New York boasts the use of plate data “is only limited by the officer’s imagination.”
And what if the person with the data isn’t even a police officer? Private companies now collect license plate records en masse, and sell them to repossession businesses or law enforcement agencies. There’s a good chance your own vehicle plate is recorded in such a database. The largest, the National Vehicle Location Service, run by Vigilant Solutions in California, holds more than 800 million plate readings, tagged with time, location, and a photo of the vehicle. The database adds up to 50 million plate records each month. Only five states have passed laws governing such records.
A spate of innovative websites like MugShots.com and JustMugShots.com have apparently hit on a lucrative business model: They troll law enforcement databases for millions of public arrest records and publish them within easy reach of a Google search. When an embarrassed arrestee complains, the website offers to take down the photo for a fee (perhaps $10 or nearly $200, depending on the site).
Now the websites face a legal challenge from a class-action lawsuit in Ohio: Attorneys claim the websites operate merely to “extort” money from arrestees. —D.J.D.