A report into how Milwaukee police are using their automatic license plate scanning technology demonstrates exactly how much data police are collecting on every car on the road, the vast majority of whom are regular citizens not wanted for any reason, suspected of any criminal charge.
Police absolutely love these tools. It is a force multiplier, allowing a single officer to effectively scan thousands of plate per hour, looking for any vehicle that has been flagged as stolen, drivers who may have outstanding criminal warrants, suspended driver’s license, amber alerts, or other suspected scofflaws.
These ALPR cameras systems can snap pictures of any license plate within camera range, even cars traveling at highway speed. Sophisticated software immediately takes the image, converts it to text, and compares it to an on-board database. If it matches any “hits” of cars that are sought out by law enforcement, the officer in the vehicle is immediately alerted that a vehicle or person of interest is nearby.
But the amount of data being scooped up is astounding. Every shot is saved, with the time, and GPS location of the hit. Police ran the locations of a reporter for Fox-6 Milwaukee for the story, and had her tagged and spotted en-route to picking up her kids. A single police cruiser mounted camera can stack up half a million hits in 2 months.
Massive Data Mining Of All Citizens
If you drive on public streets, that you can safely assume that you have been spotted and you are logged in a police database. And data saving and sharing policies are thin or non-existent. The Fox6 story notes that of 4 Wisconsin police departments surveyed, 1 has a policy to keep the data for a year, 1 for 3 years, and two have no policy in place.
Sharing between agencies isn’t standard yet, but the ability will only get simpler, and the desire to mine the data for patterns will be irresistible. Some local purchases of ALPR systems are funded with grants from the Department of Homeland Security, which require data sharing with national federal databases as a condition of the funding.
And, who has access to these historical data searches, and for what purpose. The more data collected, the deeper the analysis can go.
What cars are regularly tracked parked near each other, or heading to the same location? You can make a map of a persons interests and associations just from where their car is tagged.
Civil libertarian groups like the ALCU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are rightly concerned about these potential uses and abuses. Laws limiting access are necessary.
Responsible lawmakers in Maine have made a statewide law requiring that ALPR data only be stored for 21 days. And town officials in Brookline, MA recently rejected funding for these systems due to privacy concerns and sharing requirements. They ended up using city funds to purchase the systems instead, and wrote their own oversight policy with 6 month reviews of how the data has been used.
Responsible use of police tracking technology is possible, but only with an engaged citizenry that is vigilant against extreme government intrusion.