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    USA Today: Police partner with license plate readers

    USA Today has a report on an issue I’ve discussed before: law enforcement use of license-plate scanners to track cars.

    The cameras read license plates of parked and moving cars — hundreds per minute — and check them against vehicle databases, said Lance Clem, a spokesman for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, which purchased several systems for its police vehicles last fall.

    Departments in Denver and Colorado Springs; South Portland, Maine; Gwinnett, Douglas and Cherokee counties in Georgia; and Clinton, Conn., are planning to deploy or have already added License Plate Recognition (LPR) systems this year, officials from those agencies said.

    Also, about 40 law enforcement agencies in the Washington, D.C., metro area are deploying LPRs this year, according to Nate Maloney, a spokesman for their supplier, ELSAG of Brewster, N.Y. The district has had them since 2005, he said. […]

    AAA national spokesman Troy Green said the auto club supports the readers being used to recover stolen cars, but he said the organization is concerned about their use “solely as a revenue generator” or to create records of vehicle movements.

    Maine state Sen. Dennis Damon, a Democrat, said he’s worried about the potential for abuse. He has sponsored a bill requiring any Maine department using the camera systems to purge the stored images of scanned plates after 21 days. The bill was approved by a transportation committee last month, he said.

    My questions concerning such technology have not changed: Constant surveillance treats all individuals as if they are already considered suspicious or guilty. Ubiquitous surveillance occurs in certain situations, such as prisons. Do we want people driving or walking in public to become as watched and tracked as prisoners?

    Is this data collection worth the civil liberties costs? Though the scanners do find some criminals, there is a cost-effectiveness argument to be made. For example, in Arizona, “Of the thousands of license plates scanned each day, only a small fraction of the vehicles are tied to some possible criminal activity.”

    Getting the public to accept the always-on surveillance system initially would be the hard part. Changing the rules of the system later would be easy. It would be simple for police and government officials to later to create more uses for the data or to allow more types of government personnel to access the data. The data is already being collected, they would likely say, so why not get as much use as possible out of it?

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