PhotoHere are a few civil liberty issues worthy of debate: do you have any right to privacy at all outside the confines of your home? Do police have the right to record and keep a permanent record of your whereabouts at all times? And if police do have this right, who else does?

These aren't merely dystopian sci-fi scenarios; modern technology makes them already commonplace. To offer just one example: Cameras mounted everywhere from moving police dashboards to stationary highway overpasses see and record every passing vehicle and license plate; many of these cameras also clearly show the driver as well.

There are undeniable crime-fighting advantages to this technology — for example, when a car is reported stolen, the ability to instantly scan all on-the-road license plates in a given area and compare them to the database of recently stolen vehicles makes it much easier to recover the stolen car and prosecute the thief.

But what about the vast majority of cars that were not stolen? And for how long should those recordings be kept?

Last July the ACLU argued that there was no need for police departments to keep license-plate camera recordings any longer than necessary to see whether a give car or license plate is on a “hot list” of stolen or suspicious vehicles.

How many such records police have regarding your whereabouts depends largely on where you live and where you drive. The ACLU's report “You are being tracked: how license plate readers are being used to record Americans' movements” includes a map showing a sampling of “retention policies” among various police departments that use license-plate scanners. In Minnesota, for example, the State Patrol deletes scanned license plate information after 48 hours, and has less than 20,000 “stored plate reads” on file at any given time, out of a total state population of 5.3 million.

Compare that to Jersey City, New Jersey, with a population of only 250,000 people: there, recordings of license plate scans are kept on file for five years, and there's currently an estimated 10 million “stored plate reads” on file.

Other police departments have no limits at all on how long they keep this data on file.

Legislator concerned

PhotoLast week the Los Angeles Times reported that at least one California legislator, state Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), is concerned enough about private plate-scanning companies (though not necessarily public police departments) not only collecting such information, but selling it to anyone willing to pay.

Hill told The Times that, to illustrate the invasive potential of the scanners, he hired a private detective to track his wife's whereabouts (presumably with her consent). But the detective never had to actually “track” her; he merely paid to acquire her license plate records and learned where she drove and parked—including a particular gym 100 miles from her home.

In another incident, a man in San Leandro filed a public-records request and discovered that the public record includes photographs of his daughters standing in their driveway, alongside over 100 photos of the man's license plate in various locations.

This situation is hardly unique to California. In 2011, for example, Slashdot noted that “plate readers abound in [Washington] DC with little regard for privacy”; at the time over 250 scanners in the city and its suburbs were recording and cross-checking license plate data in real time.

As of 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, over 70 percent of police departments use similar scanners.

Private vendors

Of even greater concern, perhaps, is the notion that police departments who have such scanners might actually set fine-and-enforcement quotas in order to pay for them — or have the private scanner companies set those quotas for them. The Los Angeles Times reports that this might be happening already in Tempe, Arizona:

Last year, [private scanner/data company] Vigilant Solutions offered police in Tempe, Ariz., license plate scanners for free. But there was a catch, according to a copy of the offer obtained by The Times.

To keep the freebies, the Tempe department had to go after at least 25 outstanding "Vigilant provided" warrants each month. In general, such arrangements are paid for by private collection companies, which profit by going after warrants that result from people failing to pay municipal fines, said Brian Shockley, a vice president at Vigilant.

In the document, Vigilant assured the Tempe department that the offer was not an attempt to "unduly influence" its police work. But the company also warned that the free cameras would be taken away if the police department failed to meet its monthly quota.

Tables turned

PhotoHowever much police and other authorities might like keeping permanent records on what local citizens are doing anywhere in range of the scanners, police show far more recalcitrance at keeping tabs on themselves, even when they're on the clock.

Last month, for example, the LA Times ran an article about another police-and-recording issue: ever since last year, police in Los Angeles have been required to record their on-duty activities, via transmitters in their uniform belts, and dashboard cameras that come on anytime the car's siren or emergency lights are activated. However, an investigation showed that up to half of all such police cars mysteriously had their antennas break or go missing, so that the monitoring equipment didn't work.

Of course, this presumed dislike of being recorded is hardly limited to police in Los Angeles, or even in California.

On May 13, a mere three days before the LA Times story about state Senator Mateo and the license-plate scanners, Washington Post criminal-justice blogger Radley Balko wrote that “Despite court rulings, people are still getting arrested for recording on-duty cops,” and said:

… police in Chicopee, Mass., have arrested and charged a woman for allegedly recording her arrest with her cellphone surreptitiously.

When you see one of these stories, please remember that it is perfectly legal to record on-duty police in every state in the country. That includes states that require all parties to a conversation to consent in order for that conversation to be recorded.

Police arresting citizens for recording them while on duty is such a commonplace event, despite its legality, that there are entire websites dedicated to showcasing the most recent examples. At the same time, anti-police-corruption groups like Copblock.org urge people to “Film the Police.”

It's also quite affordable these days to outfit your car with a dashboard camera or other recording equipment of your own – which is helpful if you want to turn the tables on the police who are monitoring and recording your whereabouts, but won't do anything to prevent them monitoring and recording you in the first place.


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