NPR : News

Filed Under:

Police May Know Exactly Where You Were Last Tuesday

License plate scanners are the dark horse of the surveillance world. They've been around for a decade, but people rarely notice. They don't look much different from closed circuit cameras, perched over busy intersections. Or they're just another device mounted on a passing police car.

But they notice you: A scanner can ID thousands of plates a day. And a new ACLU report says the vast majority of police agencies now use them.

The report's chief author, Catherine Crump, says her organization isn't opposed to the technology per se.

"At first, we didn't think it posed much of a privacy problem," Crump said. The ACLU saw a system that triggered a real-time alert to the presence of a stolen vehicle, or a car linked to a fugitive, and that seemed acceptable. But then the group realized police were storing the license plate scans — whether or not there had been a "hit."

The ACLU's public records requests show some departments have accumulated millions of scans, and the agencies store the data for years — even indefinitely. The scans are also being shared across departments, and with the federal government.

Privacy hawks worry that this has the makings to become a powerful search engine of past traffic. The more ubiquitous the scanners become, the easier it'll be to verify where you've driven over the past years. The databases can place your car in a city you claim you've never visited, or in front of the house of a person you claim not to know.

"Having all this information, sitting in a database, I think could be quite chilling," Crump says.

But police see things differently. These plate-scan databases are a potential gold mine for detectives who might have nothing else to go on. A quick dip into a list of plates scanned near the crime scene might produce that precious first step: a name.

"It's another tool in our belt," says Sgt. Robert Eberling, who's with the police department in Grapevine, Texas. It's a midsized suburb of Dallas, but the ACLU's records show that, as of August 2012, it had collected and stored 2 million plate scans.

Eberling says that number is inflated by the fact that the department uses the scanners in the parking lots of a big shopping mall, where stolen cars are often abandoned. He says the scanners are very useful for recovering those vehicles. But he concedes the resulting database may also come in handy down the road.

"God forbid if the day came that a child is abducted from that mall," he says. "We would have that tool available to us, to look at that data and see if we can't find a possible suspect vehicle."

Eberling says the police department is in the process of coming up with new rules for how long to keep the data. Texas doesn't impose any limit on how long police can keep the scans, but as the technology spreads, a couple of states have stepped in. Arkansas and Maine bar police from storing scans not linked to crimes, and the Minnesota State Patrol deletes records after two days.

Want to know how long your local police save the scans? Check the ACLU map. The organization filed public document requests with nearly 600 police agencies, and heard back from 300. If your local police responded, you can read what they said about their scanners.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

He Died At 32, But A Young Artist Lives On In LA's Underground Museum

When Noah Davis founded the museum, he wanted to bring world-class art to a neighborhood he likened to a food desert, meaning no grocery stores or museums. Davis died a year ago Monday.
NPR

The Strange, Twisted Story Behind Seattle's Blackberries

Those tangled brambles are everywhere in the city, the legacy of an eccentric named Luther Burbank whose breeding experiments with crops can still be found on many American dinner plates.
WAMU 88.5

State Taxes, School Budgets And The Quality Of Public Education

Budget cutbacks have made it impossible for many states to finance their public schools. But some have bucked the trend by increasing taxes and earmarking those funds for education. Taxes, spending and the quality of public education.

NPR

Listen: 'Web Site Story,' NPR's Musical About The Internet — From 1999

Found in our archives: an Internet-themed remake of West Side Story from the dot-com bubble era. It begins with Bill Gates and features the sound of a modem but isn't as obsolete as you might expect.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.