By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 17, 2008; C01
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.
Privacy advocates say they are concerned about what is done with the images picked up.
"What's going to happen to the data?" asked MarcRotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which monitors civil liberties issues. "The Department of Homeland Security will now have an enormous amount of information about the travel habits of Washington area residents."
Rotenberg questioned whether the terrorist databases connected to the readers would be any more reliable than the much-criticized watch lists used at airports.
Authorities say many of the details of the new program are being worked out. But Reardon said that at least in the short term, officials don't plan to store data on the scanned license plates, except for those associated with terrorism or other crime.
"We'll have to carefully weigh all those [privacy] issues and make sure we do it the right way," said Andrew Lauland, the top homeland security official in Maryland.
But, he said, license plates are open to view by any passerby. "So there's nothing intrusive about it," he said.
In some ways, the new system might be less invasive, Reardon said. Currently, police can run the plate number of any vehicle, turning up the name of the owner, he said. The new system pulls up information only on cars linked to crime or terrorism, he said.
If a vehicle has no such associations, "you're not even in the database," he said.
Lauland said the system could be useful in such incidents as the hijacking of a fuel tanker in Baltimore last fall that raised fears of potential terrorism. The vehicle was found in the District, and a terror connection was ruled out.
In England, one of the suspects in last year's botched car bomb attacks in London and Glasgow was arrested after his license plate was picked up by roadside cameras.
Reardon said, however, that there might be a time delay of up to several hours in getting information on wanted cars into the license plate devices being installed in police vehicles. He said the devices would be useful for more than just potentially stopping terrorists. "It will help us identify other types of criminal activity" by detecting cars used in offenses such as bank robberies, he said.
The tag readers are one of about two dozen projects in the Washington region that will be funded with the homeland security grant, an annual award to urban areas at risk of terrorist attack.
Officials announced that they will also spend $4 million to equip police in the area with radiation detectors; $5.6 million for training and gear for local bomb squads; and about $18 million for equipment, planning and exercises to help the region's hospitals and medical personnel cope with disasters.
Robert Malson, president of the D.C. Hospital Association, said he was grateful that state and local officials had devoted so much of the grant to the medical sector.
"Normally they focus most of the money on government agencies, but the hospitals are a critical part of the response to any natural disaster or terrorist attack," he said.
The $59.8 million urban area grant to the region was smaller than the $61.6 million it received last year from the Department of Homeland Security. However, the D.C. area also received a new homeland-security grant this year, of $11.5 million, to help it prepare for such catastrophes as the detonation of a nuclear bomb.
Staff researcher Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.