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Intersection: Sidewalks & Public Space

Chapter by Melissa Ngo

"The Myth of Security Under Camera Surveillance"


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    Boston Globe: Boston Police halt license scanning program

    The Boston Globe reports that the Boston police department has stopped a program using license-plate-scanning technology to gather data on drivers after privacy questions arose:

    The Boston Police Department has indefinitely suspended its use of high-tech scanners that automatically check whether drivers have outstanding parking tickets, lapsed insurance or other violations after a Globe investigation raised serious privacy concerns.

    The police inadvertently released to the Globe the license plate numbers of more than 68,000 vehicles that had tripped alarms on automated license plate readers over a six-month period. Many of the vehicles were scanned dozens of times in that period alone.

    The accidental release triggered immediate doubts about whether the police could reliably protect the sensitive data. It also raised questions about whether police were following up on the scans, since numerous vehicles repeatedly triggered alarms for the same offenses. One motorcycle that had been reported stolen triggered scanner alerts 59 times over six months, while another plate with lapsed insurance was scanned a total of 97 times in the same span. [...]

    But privacy advocates said Boston’s problems with the scanners underscore how easily the technology can be misused. The Boston police are one of the few departments in the state with explicit policies to protect privacy, but the released data calls into question how closely they follow their own rules. [...]

    More than 60 law enforcement agencies across Massachusetts use automated license plate recognition technology, including every police department in the Boston area. The scanners use high-speed cameras to compare plates against police databases, including vehicles associated with outstanding warrants, lapsed registration, expired insurance, or unpaid parking tickets.

    The readers also record the date, time, and GPS location of each vehicle, even in heavy traffic. The technology thus offers a wealth of information for surveillance as well as investigations: with enough scans over time, police can trace a particular vehicle’s path and discern driving habits.

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