The Washington Post reports on the use of license-plate readers in the District of Columbia. I discussed the issue when Washington, D.C., began expanding the use of these license plate readers a few years ago. One of the biggest questions then remains: What happens to all the data on innocent individuals? We don’t know what the restrictions are on the collection and use of the data. The Post report shows 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:
More than 250 cameras in the District and its suburbs scan license plates in real time, helping police pinpoint stolen cars and fleeing killers. But the program quietly has expanded beyond what anyone had imagined even a few years ago.
With virtually no public debate, police agencies have begun storing the information from the cameras, building databases that document the travels of millions of vehicles.
Nowhere is that more prevalent than in the District, which has more than one plate-reader per square mile, the highest concentration in the nation. Police in the Washington suburbs have dozens of them as well, and local agencies plan to add many more in coming months, creating a comprehensive dragnet that will include all the approaches into the District. […]
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. […]
The plate readers are different from red-light or speed cameras, which issue traffic tickets and are tools for deterrence and enforcement. The readers are an investigative tool, capturing a picture of every license plate that passes by and instantly analyzing them against a database filled with cars wanted by police. Police can also plug any license plate number into the database and, as long as it passed a camera, determine where that vehicle has been and when. […]
And while D.C. law requires that the footage on crime surveillance cameras be deleted after 10 days unless there’s an investigative reason to keep it, there are no laws governing how or when Washington area police can use the tag reader technology. The only rule is that it be used for law enforcement purposes. […]
A George Mason University study last year […] that fewer than 30 percent of the agencies using the tool had researched any legal implications. […] Beyond the technology’s ability to track suspects and non-criminals alike, it has expanded beyond police work. Tax collectors in Arlington bought their own units and use the readers to help collect money owed to the county. Chesterfield County, in Virginia, uses a reader it purchased to collect millions of dollars in delinquent car taxes each year, comparing the cars on the road against the tax rolls.