If you’ve ever been on a residential Washington, D.C., street at 8 a.m., you’ve probably seen a patrol car cruising slowly past a line of cars. What’s he doing? Scanning their license plates to see if they’re authorized to park in a certain zone. If not, bring on the ticket. But, this technology is being used for so much more and in a recent in-depth feature on these license plate readers by The Washington Post it was revealed just how extensive the District’s system of these cameras really is.
More than 250 cameras capture 1,800 images a minute in D.C. and surrounding suburbs. These images are kept for varying lengths depending on location — from months to years — and have been used to find stolen cars and identify murderers fleeing scenes of crimes. But, according to the Washington Post, the Washington D.C. Police Department has been quietly expanding this program with little public debate on the databases of images tracking everyday people’s movements.
The Post reports that the District is most heavily armed with these plate readers with more than one installed per square mile, making it the highest density in the country, but the suburbs in the metro area have many as well:
[...] local agencies plan to add many more in coming months, creating a comprehensive dragnet that will include all the approaches into the District.
“It never stops,” said Capt. Kevin Reardon, who runs Arlington County’s plate reader program. “It just gobbles up tag information. One of the big questions is, what do we do with the information?”
Police departments are grappling with how long to store the information and how to balance privacy concerns against the value the data provide to investigators. The data are kept for three years in the District, two years in Alexandria, a year in Prince George’s County and a Maryland state database, and about a month in many other suburban areas.
“That’s quite a large database of innocent people’s comings and goings,” said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union’s technology and liberty program. “The government has no business collecting that kind of information on people without a warrant.”
The ACLU also takes issue with the lack of transparency to the public before systems such as these are implemented. Here’s what the organization writes on their blog:
[...] technologies that have such significant implications for our privacy — and more broadly, what kind of society we want to live in — should not be put in place through what I call “procurement policymaking.” The police should not be able to run out and buy a new technology and put it in place before anybody realizes what’s going on — before society has a chance to discuss and debate it and consider where we want to draw the lines between police power and the freedom to live a private life. That decision is one that should be made through the full, open, democratic process — not quietly and unilaterally by police departments.
“It has now become clear that this technology, if we do not limit its use, will represent a significant step toward the creation of a surveillance society in the United States,”
The plate readers are not to be confused with traffic light cameras. These are a whole different ball game, taking photos of each license plate driving by and analyzing it against a database of plate numbers wanted by authorities, the Post reports. As of right now other areas around the country have similar technology, but the District boasts 73 readers at stationary locations or attached to cop cars. But the Post reports officials as saying that someday every cop cruiser will have one.
This YouTube video gives an overview of the technology:
While there are benefits to such technology, such as catching criminals faster, and the D.C. area has a lot of historic buildings and important people to protect, many are concerned of legal implications, which are similar to those recently heard by the Supreme Court over warrantless GPS tracking. The Post continues:
Orin Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University who has been closely watching the Supreme Court case, said the license plate technology probably would pass constitutional muster because there is no reasonable expectation of privacy on public streets.
But, Kerr said, the technology’s silent expansion has allowed the government to know things it couldn’t possibly know before and that the use of such massive amounts of data needs safeguards.
“It’s big brother, and the question is, is it big brother we want, or big brother that we don’t want?” Kerr said. “This technology could be used for good and it could be used for bad. I think we need a conversation about whether and how this technology is used. Who gets the information and when? How long before the information is deleted? All those questions need scrutiny.”
Should someone access the database for something other than a criminal investigation, they could track people doing legal but private things. Having a comprehensive database could mean government access to information about who attended a political event, visited a medical clinic, or went to Alcoholics Anonymous or Planned Parenthood.
According to the Post, each reader costs $20,000 and can capture tags of four lanes of cars going up to 150 mph. Recently, we reported on similar technology that could be used to catch speeders more than one at a time.
[H/T Popular Science]