Police license plate reader

In the wake of revelations about the NSA’s secret surveillance programs, more information is coming forth about how police departments store the data they collect from license plate readers. Mounted on police cars, the devices can log photos of thousands of license plates in a single day’s shift. The Center for Investigative Reporting found that millions of these records are being stored in local intelligence fusion centers, one of which is funded by a Silicon Valley firm with ties to the Pentagon and the CIA. Supporters say the license plate data help law enforcement catch criminals — but others say the photos are a violation of privacy and make it easy to track law-abiding citizens.

Mike Sena, director of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, which stores the data law enforcement collects from license plate readers from 14 local counties
Ali Winston, reporter and photographer covering criminal justice and author of an article on license plate readers for the Center for Investigative Reporting

  • Hezekiah

    The greed is so intense and of such a degenerate nature in Silly Con valley, that many entrepreneurs will do anything to make a buck, as will most of the lauded “genius” software engineers, even if their actions result in fascism returning from the dead, or even the USA becoming a more monstrous version of East Germany’s police state. These techies are (speaking as one of them) mostly shallow, egotistical people with narcissistic personalities and little wisdom.

    Do note, the creeps at Palantir or In-q-tel aren’t really inventing anything that the Nazis didn’t think of 70 years ago, but rather they are merely bringing political oppression up to date, replacing a few informants with license plate readers, complementing wiretaps with face-recognizing cameras (like TrapWire used in San Francisco), and instead of bugs in apartments they’re getting data directly from Verizon and Skype.

  • Chris OConnell

    I am a big supporter of privacy rights. But how can you have privacy rights when you are out in public on the (public) roads? Privacy happens behind closed doors and on private (not public) property.

    • ewrp

      Did you see the picture in the full story linked above? The police captured a picture of a car in the owner’s driveway with passengers exiting the car. You are right that there is no expectation of privacy on public roads but a main concern is how long the police retains the data and who has access to it.

  • thucy

    The issue remains that Bay Area PD’s aren’t accountable even to their own internal review departments. As long as official reports of violations and criminal conduct among SFPD officers remain private, as they have been for approximately a decade, there is unfortunately no reason to believe that they will “manage” add’l information honorably or responsibly.

    It’s amazing that the malfeasance at SFPD’s DNA crime lab ever was reported in the first place.

  • Chemist150

    Working for a contract company, they wanted me to sign several forms allowing them to do extensive background checking which included driving behavior. I found that weird but I do know they have cameras that can read licenses. An example is one at the intersection next to the Hells Angels club in Oakland. It has IR LEDs so it can take images at night as well but they’re all over.

    Fortunately, I did not sign these records and was not required for my employment but they did not tell me. I simply did not submit them since they seemed too intrusive.

  • thucy

    The caller who worked for the data collection company makes a good point, but as has been pointed out everywhere from the NY Times to The Guardian, there’s a distinction between a private company collecting data, and a dysfunctional police-and-prison-industrial complex collecting such data. One has the power to bill you, the other has the weaponry and legal power to strip you of your rights and freedom, as it has already done to minority populations for nom-violent drug offenses.
    Is it Orwell or Kafka? Who cares, it’s broken either way.

  • gez devlin

    In the UK police use license plate readers to identify vehicles without insurance and road tax. A large % of these vehicles end up removed and crushed, which demonstrates how far some police agencies will exploit this technology.

  • thucy

    brilliant last caller who referenced Ellsberg, the turn-key state, and the potential for even the most well-meaning law enforcement people to abuse their access to data

  • bisphenol

    Mike Sena was asked whether they share data with Federal agencies .. his answer ran long and talked about need-to-know, right-to-know, all the auditing controls in place and self-restraint they exercise, but effectively dodged the question.

    So, does the LPR data ends up in the hands of other Federal agencies? Given they have such stringent audit controls, this should be an easy question to answer.

    • thucy

      It’s one thing that he dodged the question – it’s another that the host, Thuy Vu, (whom many of us grew up watching on local news, and really admired) didn’t follow up.
      I’m always hoping that Forum will diversify its host rotation to include (gasp!) women and even maybe (please?) non-white people, if only for some larger perspective.
      But if Thuy Vu is as uninterested in pursuing serious questions as plain-vanilla Iverson is (and as often as Krasny is), then “diversity” is just cosmetic.
      I.F. Stone would never be asked to host Forum.

      • bisphenol

        To be fair, Mike Sena was filibustering a little bit. Plus it was only a 30-minute segment.

  • bisphenol

    Side-bar comment; police departments aren’t the only Bay area government agencies that collect vehicular location data:

    — Fastrak uses LPR cameras at all the toll booths, capturing youwhether you are a Fastrak participant or not.

    — Fastrak transponders are silently queried by Caltrans at many locations on Bay Area highways. Ostensibly this is for real-time 5-1-1 traffic data collection.

    In both cases the collection is performed for a point-in-time purpose, but it’s unclear if there is any policy governing data retention or sharing. As likely as not, it all pipes right into the same big-data spook machine.

    • ewrp

      No one is obligated to use Fastrak though. You can pay in cash and I would hope there would be no record of your license plate crossing a toll booth. I guess the Bay Bridge going toll less is changing this notion though since they do log every license plate crossing the bridge whether you pay in cash or not.

      • thucy

        I think (haven’t fact-checked it yet) the Golden Gate Bridge has been totally without manual pay option at the toll area for a while. This is a problem for tourists whose credit cards are subsequently billed $30 by the rental car agency.

      • bisphenol

        Nobody is obligated yet, but practically speaking there may be little difference.

        Whether your tags are being read and recorded while you pay cash is another thing. Given the automated nature of the toll operation, I expect it probably ends up in the data stream regardless.

  • bisphenol

    One should read the “about us” page for NCRIC


    Note their funding sources, and stated mission.

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