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    Update: License-plate Scanners Raise Privacy, Civil Liberties Questions

    When Washington, D.C., began expanding the use of these license-plate readers a few years ago, I discussed the privacy issues connected with the use of license-plate recognition surveillance technology to gather and record drivers’ movements. One of the biggest questions then remains: What happens to all the data on innocent individuals? Often, we don’t know what the restrictions are on the collection and use of the data. A Washington Post report in December showed that we still don’t know what happens to all of the data, but here’s how some of it is used: In one Virginia county, the license-plate scanning technology is being used for tax collection. In June, L.A. Weekly reported that, in California, the license-plate tracking data is being logged and kept by police even when individuals are not suspects. Law enforcement agencies are going beyond searches for outstanding warrants or stolen vehicles. For example, Los Angeles police are keeping the data for 5 years.

    In the past few weeks, there have been several stories concerning the use of license-plate scanners and the privacy and civil liberties questions raised by the use of these devices. Ars Technica reports on the rapid rise of the technology and the concerns about its use and how it affects individuals. “Today, tens of thousands of LPRs are being used by law enforcement agencies all over the country—practically every week, local media around the country report on some LPR expansion. But the system’s unchecked and largely unmonitored use raises significant privacy concerns. License plates, dates, times, and locations of all cars seen are kept in law enforcement databases for months or even years at a time. In the worst case, the New York State Police keeps all of its LPR data indefinitely. No universal standard governs how long data can or should be retained.”

    LPR systems are doing big business at the moment. The country’s largest such company, Federal Signal Corporation (FSC), which sells LPRs under its PIPS brand name, says it has sold 20,000 mobile systems across North America and another 15,000 fixed devices across the United States and the United Kingdom.

    “We work with the 25 largest cities in the United States, over 100 cities in the US and over 200 in North America, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and in Mexico,” said Tim O’Leary, a company vice president, in an interview with Ars. “We think the market is growing at 8 to 10 percent, adjusted growth rate, annually.”

    Fast Company reports that New York City has created a broad camera surveillance (or closed-circuit television, CCTV) system called the Domain Awareness System, which includes license-plate recognition technology.

    The New York Police Department is embracing online surveillance in a wide-eyed way. Representatives from Microsoft and the NYPD announced the launch of their new Domain Awareness System (DAS) at a lower Manhattan press conference today. Using DAS, police are able to monitor thousands of CCTV cameras around the five boroughs, scan license plates, find out the kind of radiation cars are emitting, and extrapolate info on criminal and terrorism suspects from dozens of criminal databases … all in near-real time.

    New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly first announced that Microsoft had the NYPD’s Domain Awareness System under development at the Aspen Security Forum in July. Microsoft has quietly become one of the world’s largest providers of integrated intelligence solutions for police departments and security agencies. Although DAS is officially being touted as an anti-terrorism solution, it will also give the NYPD access to technologies that–depending on the individual’s perspectives–veer on science fiction or Big Brother to combat street crime. The City of New York and Microsoft will be licensing DAS out to other cities; according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s government will take a 30% cut of any profits. [...]

    According to publicly available documents, the system will collect and archive data from thousands of NYPD- and private-operated CCTV cameras in New York City, integrate license plate readers, and instantly compare data from multiple non-NYPD intelligence databases. Facial recognition technology is not utilized and only public areas will be monitored, officials say. Monitoring will take place 24 hours a day, seven days a week at a specialized location in Lower Manhattan. Video will be held for 30 days and then deleted unless the NYPD chooses to archive it. Metadata and license plate info collected by DAS will be retained for five years, and unspecified “environmental data” will be stored indefinitely.

    In Minnesota, “A South St. Paul car dealer used data stored by Minneapolis police license plate scanners to repossess a car on Thursday, likely the first time the records have been used by a business in Minnesota,” the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports. This use has raised privacy questions, and “Privacy advocates have recently called for the Legislature to craft legislation addressing license plate data classification, retention and sharing.”

    Jake Ingebrigtson, co-owner of Car and Credit Connection, sought information on four cars after reading in the Star Tribune that data captured by license plate cameras is public and retained for one year in Minneapolis. Ingebrigtson’s company sells cars to people with bad credit and the owners of the cars had stopped making payments.

    The data’s value for a repo man illustrates just one of the potential applications of Minneapolis’ massive database chronicling patterns of vehicles on its streets. Some privacy advocates fear that data could eventually be used for more sinister purposes.

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