Sunday, May 4, 2014

License Plate Trackers Threaten Privacy

By Nicholas Pell

As if you didn’t have enough privacy concerns, here’s something else to think about: Local police departments are tracking your car using devices that automatically read your license plate.
Police and other government agencies can craft an eerily specific profile of who you are and what you do just based on where you drive. Spend a lot of time at bars? You may have a drinking problem. Going to a specific church each Sunday? Then your religion is easy to figure out. All of these things can be inferred merely by looking at where you drive and how often you drive there.
Perhaps most concerning is that this isn’t something you can opt out of.
Just the Facts Ma’amSo far as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was able to find out, 600 police departments in 38 states were using the surveillance technology as of 2012 -- and perhaps more today. Precisely how long your information is kept on file varies from place to place:
  • Jersey City, N.J. keeps your information for five years, with approximately 10 million license plates currently on file.
  • Grapevine, Texas keeps information indefinitely, with 2 million plates currently on file.
  • Milpitas, Calif. stores data indefinitely, with approximately 4.7 million plates currently on file.
  • Minnesota State Patrol deletes plate information after 48 hours and currently has fewer than 20,000 plates on record.
The Potential of Plate ReadersAs you can see, small communities such as Milpitas (population 67,000) have plates far in excess of their population. What this means is that you could already have your information housed in a number of local and state police departments without even knowing it -- just because you’ve driven through that jurisdiction. Private companies are also collecting this information and sharing it among themselves and with police departments.
While there are legitimate reasons for police departments to collect this information (such as the most obvious one: finding stolen cars), it’s not terribly clear what they’re doing with the data otherwise.
Indeed, out of 1 million plates read, 2,000 matched for crimes, of which only 47 were “serious,” according to the ACLU.
The main problem is that there’s not yet any regulation around this practice. Only five states have laws on the matter, and out of those, only Maine prohibits them completely.
So what can you do to protect yourself? Not much. Contact your state reps to encourage legislation restricting the use of license plate readers or at least forcing their implementation to be more transparent.
Nicholas Pell  is a freelance writer based in Hollywood, CA. He writes about music, personal finance and technology for publications such as LA Weekly, Salon and Business Insider. He’s been online since the days of Usenet groups and bulletin board systems.

Read more: Cybercrime News: License Plate Trackers Threaten Privacy | Your Security Resource

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