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License Plate Readers To Be Used In D.C. Area

Detective Charles Baker of the Charles County sheriff's office checks data from two cameras installed atop his cruiser that scan license plates.
Detective Charles Baker of the Charles County sheriff's office checks data from two cameras installed atop his cruiser that scan license plates. (By James A. Parcell For The Washington Post)
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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 17, 2008

Authorities plan to install about 200 automated license plate readers on police vehicles and alongside roads in the Washington area to thwart potential terrorist attacks, dramatically expanding the use of a high-tech tool previously aimed at parking scofflaws and car thieves.

Top homeland security officials from Maryland, Virginia and the District agreed last week to spend $4.5 million on the new system, officials said Friday. The funds will come from a $59.8 million federal homeland security grant for the D.C. area announced last month. That grant also will be used to outfit police with radiation detectors, improve hazmat and bomb squads and provide equipment to hospitals, officials decided.

License plate scanners, also known as tag readers, took off in Britain in the 1990s as a way to deter Irish Republican Army attacks, and police here have started using the technology to identify stolen vehicles and illegally parked cars. A handful of the devices are in use by law enforcement agencies in the Washington region for such tasks.

The new project is much broader, installing cameras on about 160 police vehicles and at 40 fixed sites, such as airports or highway entrances, officials say. It appears to be one of the most extensive license reading systems in the nation, according to privacy experts.

"This is a vast expansion of the technology, and a vast change in the goal of the technology," said Melissa Ngo, publisher of http://www.privacylives.com, a site about privacy and civil liberties issues. Ngo, a former journalist who has worked at The Washington Post and other publications, questioned the outlay of so much money on a project described as an anti-terrorist tool.

"Do they have any proof that this works?" Ngo asked.

Arlington Police Capt. Kevin Reardon, who has worked on planning the new system, said the tag readers have shown that they can boost police efficiency.

"The technology has reached the point where it's very good now. It puts a tool in the hands of police officers out in the street to help fight terrorism," said Reardon, who works in his department's homeland security unit.

The readers will scan the license plate of every vehicle that zooms by and run the numbers through federal criminal databases and terrorist watch lists, Reardon said. Maryland, Virginia and the District could plug in additional databases.

When the machines get "hits," they instantly notify police or other law enforcement officials. The devices can typically read hundreds of plates an hour.

Civil liberties advocates say the tag readers are the latest sign of how surveillance programs are expanding in U.S. cities, driven by terrorism fears and rapidly developing technology. New York officials said last week that they plan to scan the license plates of all cars and trucks entering Manhattan as part of a new security system that also involves thousands of closed-circuit cameras.

In the District, the government plans to use $10 million from another homeland security grant to centralize monitoring of the city's growing network of closed-circuit cameras at schools, public buildings and other places. Although city officials say the project is aimed at improving emergency response, it has stirred fierce opposition from some D.C. Council members.


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