A few reasons the public might care about license-plate tracking

A police officer scans license plates. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais).
A police officer scans license plates. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais).
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The Department of Homeland Security last week proposed tapping data from a nationwide network of automatic license-plate readers operated by commercial and law-enforcement organizations.

The plan, which came to light in a department solicitation last week, helps illustrate the federal government’s growing interest in collecting information on individuals to catch wrongdoers.

MORE: Homeland Security is seeking a national license-plate tracking system

License readers scan all vehicles that cross their paths, taking photos, gathering tag numbers and marking locations. Police departments use them. So do car-repossession services. Now, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a branch of Homeland Security, wants the data to help catch fugitive aliens, according to the solicitation.

The increased use of this technology has raised questions about whether current law adequately regulates scanner programs.

“I know the data is really valuable, and I know the potential for abuse is significant,” said Jack Bernstein, chief executive of Locator Technologies, a company involved in the field. “The question is how careful are they about vetting users and making sure that data is not misused.”

With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few incidents that have raised concerns in recent years.

Abuse by a D.C. police officer 

A D.C. police lieutenant pleaded guilty in 1998 to extorting money from customers of a gay bar. Prosecutors said he took down the plate numbers of targets and threatened to expose their lifestyle if they didn’t pay him money.

A 2012 Wall Street Journal report cited that case in an in-depth examination of plate-scanning programs and the concerns they raise, along with some of the laws legislators have proposed to keep them in check.

A Washington Post report from 2011 revealed that that D.C. had the highest concentration of license-plate scanners in the nation that year, and that the municipality kept data longer — for three years — than nearby jurisdictions.

Boston police halt license-scanning program

The Boston Police Department suspended its automatic-license-reader program last year after inadvertently releasing a database of more than 68,000 vehicles that had triggered alarms on the scanners, according to a Boston Globe report.

The mistake sparked concerns about whether the department could protect the sensitive data it gathered, according to the report. It also prompted a Massachusetts state lawmaker to propose a bill that would prohibit police from holding data for more than 48 hours without a court order.

The Boston Police Department said Tuesday that its commissioner is still reviewing the scanner program.

Other incidents

A Boston Globe article last year noted three incidents that critics of license-reader databases commonly cite as cause for concern:

* Edmonton officials admitted in 2005 that authorities had improperly used police computer systems to gather information on a Canadian newspaper columnist and the former head of the city’s police commission, both of whom had been critics of the police department. The two became targets of a failed drunk-driving sting targeting them, according to an official review of the operation.

* The New York Police Department took photos and collected license plate numbers of mosque congregants around 2006, according to an Associated Press report, which described the activities as “tactics normally reserved for criminal organizations.”

* The Minneapolis Police Department last year released information on 2.1 million license plate scans and GPS location tags in response to a public records request. The move apparently sparked fears about misuse of the data and prompted the city’s mayor to ask that a state committee immediately re-classify the information as non-public, according to a report from the Ars Technica blog.

Follow Josh Hicks on TwitterFacebook or Google+. Connect by e-mail at  josh.hicks@washpost.comVisit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics for more federal news. E-mail federalworker@washpost.com with news tips and other suggestions.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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