Colorado – According to documents obtained by The Gazette under the Colorado Open Records Act, license plate reader devices are watching more than just law breakers.
Colorado Springs police reports show that use of license-plate readers has allowed the city’s police department to construct a searchable databank containing hundreds of thousands of license plates belonging to ordinary drivers, with each entry disclosing when, and where, police last spied a certain vehicle.
The information — which potentially gives investigators a view into where people travel and how they spend their time — is characterized in internal police documents as a “massive intelligence database.”
Privacy advocates complain the databanks fail to exclude law-abiding drivers, who they say are likely unaware of the scope of monitoring.
“You’re talking about a record of movements over time of hundreds of thousands of innocent persons,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director of Colorado’s branch of the ACLU, which is mounting a nationwide effort to learn more about how license plate data is used. “It certainly is extremely powerful technology.”
Colorado Springs police defend their use of the devices as a lawful and effective crime-fighting tool.
Police received three license plate readers as part of a 2009 state grant that supplied eight devices to five local agencies.
The city’s Police Department serves as a central repository for data collected by the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office and police in Monument, Fountain, Manitou Springs and Woodland Park.
In the past year, the database has grown to include more than 1.1 million vehicles, according to a Colorado Springs police tally for the 2011-2012 fiscal year ending in June.
And police, who haven’t publicly announced the database, may be looking to expand their data-sharing capabilities.
In April, police sent a representative to the Littleton Police Department, where “multiple agencies” discussed the possibility of pooling their information, or “hosting all of our data in one place,” as Lt. Jane Anderson wrote in an annual report that disclosed few details about the meeting.
Local and regional law enforcement groups say the device does little more than snap pictures on public roads, where drivers have diminished expectations of privacy.
“It’s similar to you writing down the license plates that you see on the roadway,” said Capt. Dave Santos of the Colorado State Highway Patrol, who added that the department’s license-plate readers are dedicated to the purpose of recovering stolen vehicles and nabbing auto thieves.
“I don’t see the violation of privacy. I just don’t.”
Santos added that in Colorado, driving is a privilege rather than a right, and he drew a legal distinction between tracking license plates and individuals.
Privacy advocates counter that widespread license-plate tracking could have a chilling effect on private business conducted in public — such as parking outside counseling meetings, doctors’ offices or political protests.
“Our movements — especially if they’re tracked with the precision of GPS locations — could reveal things that some people want to keep private,” Silverstein said.
Police can turn to the database of license plates for a list of results showing when and where a vehicle was last spotted.
UK police admit surveillance cameras are patchy and sometimes ineffective.
Surveillance cameras, capable of recording 3,600 images of vehicle plate numbers per hour, are nevertheless marked by large gaps in coverage and are sometimes useless as a tool for apprehending people who break the law, UK police agencies have admitted.
Automatic Number-Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras are positioned inside police cars and along main thoroughfares across the UK. They automatically record images, plate numbers, location, and time and date information for each and every vehicle passing through. In some cases, this information is stored for up to two years.
Police chiefs have admitted there are flaws in a “big brother” surveillance system that enables them to track and store the daily journeys of millions of motorists.
The police chief who co-ordinates the growing network of more than 5,000 roadside cameras, which records the whereabouts of 16m vehicles, said the network was patchy and left”large gaps in coverage in various parts of the country”.
Police made the admissions as they won a freedom of information tribunal to keep secret the locations of the the cameras, arguing that disclosure would allow criminals to evade detection.
The comments were made as part of law enforcement’s argument that they should not be required to disclose the locations of the ANPR cameras in response to a Freedom of Information request submitted by The Guardian.
The Guardian also quoted security official Neil Winterbourne, who runs the ANPR camera program for Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism command, as saying criminals could thwart ANPR cameras by driving a certain way. “A properly trained driver can adopt a particular driving style that will greatly reduce the chance of the vehicle being detected by ANPR,” he said, declining to elaborate any further.
The home secretary, Theresa May, has ordered that regulation of the Automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras should be tightened up, amid civil liberties concerns. No other democratic country routinely tracks innocent motorists in this way. (I can think of another one the United States)
DS Neil Winterbourne, in charge of the ANPR cameras for Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism command said: “There are numerous ways in which the appearance of a number plate can be modified to reduce the chances of detection by ANPR, but these are mostly apparent when the vehicle is inspected and run the risk of attracting the attention of police, which may be counter-productive from the terrorist standpoint”.
The upshot? UK citizens are being made to sacrifice their privacy for the sake of security—but anyone engaging in illegal activity who is seriously intent on averting detection could find a way to slip out of the surveillance trap. Meanwhile, law-abiding motorists have no choice but to regularly yield private information about their whereabouts, plate numbers, travel patterns, automobiles, and other identifying data to law enforcement. With ubiquitous ANPR cameras, members of the general public are effectively stripped of their right to privacy, without any assurance that the cameras make them any safer.