Both the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department and the Los Angeles Police Department have become big fans of cameras that capture license plate numbers and check them against information in registration and criminal databases. The Sheriff's Department uses 47 fixed cameras and has 77 squad cars with the equipment, the LAPD has gone from having 12 cruisers with the cameras five years ago to 100 now – and the cameras snag images of more than a thousand plates a minute. The LA departments aren't alone, either, with 71 percent of police departments nationwide said to be using the technology, and New Hampshire the only state to ban it.

Authorities tout how the information helps find stolen cars and help solve investigations, but the American Civil Liberties Union has an issue with the police holding onto the plate images of innocent people. The LAPD is understood to retain the information for five years, the LASD keeps it "indefinitely." According to the Los Angeles Times, the ACLU of Southern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a Public Records Act request for one week of the data generated by the camera and was denied, with the law enforcement agencies arguing that the information constitutes "investigative material" and thus it doesn't need to be released. That led both organizations to sue, worried that storage of information gathered on innocent citizens is a violation of their privacy.

ACLU attorney Peter Bibring says he would like the information to be destroyed after two weeks. Before that happens, he'll need to convince a judge that long-term databases containing the real-time whereabouts are a threat to a citizen's privacy. It'll probably be tough to do: police can perform manual checks at will, people have essentially no right to privacy in public spaces, the technology is ubiquitous, with border crossings and even the IRS using it, federal grants helping departments purchase the cameras, and information now going beyond state authorities and being checked against national registration and criminal databases. The ACLU has openly questioned the cameras for years, but this isn't only about the 'surveillance state,' it's about the record-keeping state.


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  • 82 Comments
      RobG
      • 1 Year Ago
      I don't think the data should be retained AT ALL. Scan the plates, fine. Flag the ones that come up hot, like stolen cars. Beyond that, no way. Worst-case retain it for 30 days, but absolutely no longer. And there needs to be oversight to ensure the data isn't retained, sold, or anything else. Likewise, data from Black Boxes should be inadmissible in court because it paints a very incomplete picture of a situation that, without proper context, can mean any number of things.
        Really
        • 1 Year Ago
        @RobG
        Why do they need to keep the data, they have it in the database already thru DMV on their computers. Black boxes are totally unbiased and should be the top data used to tell the facts. Can we saw zero accountability. Take responsibility for yourself! Its no wonder we are going in the toilet.
      rü$╫
      • 1 Year Ago
      I have mixed feelings about this, I can see this impending on our freedoms. However when it comes to kidnapings or car thefts. This would benefit society.
      Vien Huynh
      • 1 Year Ago
      big bro showing his fang.
      oRenj9
      • 1 Year Ago
      I'm torn about this, on one hand, as someone that works in the field of data-mining and computer AI, I would love to get my hands on this information and play around with it. However, because of my background, I know exactly what can happen with this information if put into proper hands. The value of information rises exponentially with the amount of information that you have. On the surface, collecting this information seems like it could be used for tracking. While it can, the primary value of this data has nothing to do with tracking. The power of this information comes when you begin to correlate license plate and car registration information with other pieces of data -- such as local income data, crime reporting heat maps, time-of-date, traffic density, or weather -- and use that to construct predictive models for behavior. With predictive behavior models, law enforcement will be able to determine, quite accurately, if a particular vehicle is out-of-place and is guilty of a crime. The most straight-forward crime predictions would be DUI and drug users, but I'm sure other commonly reported crimes can be predicted as well. Additionally, I'm aware the the Air Force is currently performing a study to try and predict the destination of a person by only observing their initial movements. If successful, their technique could certainly be applied in this situation.
      imoore
      • 1 Year Ago
      ACLU can screw itself. Why should anyone care about an organization that cares more about the "rights" of criminals and terrorists (i.e., the Boston Marathon bombers) than the victims and their families?
        Shiftright
        • 1 Year Ago
        @imoore
        Laws have to unbiased and objective to protect everyone, not just good people, or else they're not any good, and no one is protected
      ayeco
      • 1 Year Ago
      After they scan and determine that the car is not stolen then the info should be deleted immediately. There's no reason to keep it longer except for tracking later. And that's not cool, at all.
        KC
        • 1 Year Ago
        @ayeco
        It could be used to exonerate or incriminate someone later, also a car might not be immediately reported as being stolen it might be hours or even longer before a car is reported as being stolen.
          Howard
          • 1 Year Ago
          @KC
          right, in that case, they can keep the data for a week, if anyone is so stupid as to not report it stolen after a few hours then they deserve to have their vehicle stolen. the problem with the LASD is that they're keeping it indefinitely as the article states
      chirowolf
      • 1 Year Ago
      maybe I'm confussed? But in what way is this a invasion of privacy? You plate is on public display at all times and is in the police data base. sometimes I think the ACLU just is a bunch of lawyers looking to stay in business with frivolous lawsuits.
        graphikzking
        • 1 Year Ago
        @chirowolf
        Normally I agree. It's just a license plate, but what happens if you just so happen to be within blocks of 2 or 3 crimes and they say "your license plate has you in the area of all 3 crimes". I could see them wasting a lot of manpower and causing an innocent person a lot of stress for something so silly. I have no problem with them scanning plates, but there is almost zero reason to save it for 5 years of indefinitely. You're face is open to the public when you go outside.. but would you want the government having a drone follow you everywhere you go, watching your face at every moment? It's not always what the government is doing NOW, it's what precedence it sets for the future. 1st it was cops with radar guns, then it was speed cameras, next will be black boxes in your car. Why not have a black box in your car? If you don't break the speed limit or cross a solid white line, you have nothing to hide. You only get a ticket when you do something wrong. See where things can go?
          The Wasp
          • 1 Year Ago
          @graphikzking
          If your car (even without you in it) was in the location of multiple crimes and the police don't have other suspects, I think it's pretty reasonable that they might give you a call to check on your alibi. I'm sorry if your sense of "privacy" [out in public with a government-assigned ID number] is infringed for the common good.
          jtav2002
          • 1 Year Ago
          @graphikzking
          How would they know your license plates location at all times? Last time I checked license plates don't have GPS chips in them.
          KC
          • 1 Year Ago
          @graphikzking
          It's a licence plate scanner, not a GPS locator, it is not tracking you in that sense.
      Wojo
      • 1 Year Ago
      To all those who say they have nothing to hide, so what's the big deal: why not just allow the police to search you, your car, or just stop by your home and search that on a whim? After all, you have nothing to hide....
        KC
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Wojo
        Yeah, cause having your licence plate scanned is the exact same thing.
      Matt
      • 1 Year Ago
      I don't really understand the point of keeping the license plate in a database since I already assumed police had that information from registration/DMV. Still don't have a problem with the police having that information though. Not sure why the ACLU is throwing such a fit...
        KC
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Matt
        They are not only just keeping the licence plate in a database, I'd imagine that they would have the location as well as the date/time as well. This information could be used in investigations/court by identifying suspects, around a certain place at a certain time, or the lack there of. There are numerous scenarios besides theft, such as kidnapping that could use this information, many times during a kidnapping the description of a vehicle might (and/or licence plate) might not be immediately available but might come to light at a later date. Personally I don't have an issue with this.
      • 1 Year Ago
      [blocked]
        Walt
        • 1 Year Ago
        These cameras are in use in other major metro areas. Left unchecked, they'll likely be on every police cruiser eventually.
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Walt
          [blocked]
        Shiftright
        • 1 Year Ago
        Aww shucks, I guess you won't be moving here...I'm pretty sure CA is not the only state to use this tech
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Shiftright
          [blocked]
      R S
      • 1 Year Ago
      I agree if you have nothing to hide, no big deal. My concern is that tech will get more advanced and more people will have it. So lets say insurance companies get a hold of this scanning tech. Your plate is public record and the insurance companies pay to put these scanners on major highways. Then they can prove you drive in areas where cars are more likely to get your car stolen and raise your rates! Or if you were speeding, they cant give you a ticket, but they know you speed and raise your premiums. It is a slippery slope, lets go back to \"do something wrong\" then get pulled over or searched. Protect your privacy at all cost.
        ELG
        • 1 Year Ago
        @R S
        Why would you be against having a more accurate insurance liability model? The people who DONT drive in crime infested areas and DONT drive like an idiot would then get lower rates. That sounds to me like a great application of this technology.
          R S
          • 1 Year Ago
          @ELG
          ELG, do you think insurance companies will use this to lower your rates? LOL They will use it for profit!
        KC
        • 1 Year Ago
        @R S
        It's a licence plate scanner not a speed camera. Regarding getting your car stolen, this tech will help in recovering your car faster. Also people who drive responsibly should pay less than people who don't.
        Matt
        • 1 Year Ago
        @R S
        Interesting about the insurance bit. Insurance companies are already trying to track your driving habits with those plug in things (progressive, nationwide, etc). I'm not sure I agree with you about the getting pulled over bit. Why on earth would they search your car if you have no outstanding warrants, aren't wanted, etc. It's not like a cop would search your car for no reason... (Unless he's a total dick, which has happened to me before not because of license data stored). Had nothing to hide though so I wasn't worried)
      buckfeverjohnson
      • 1 Year Ago
      I have not broken any laws is a fool's premise. Knowing people's whereabouts for no other reason than having the capability is a great way to build circumstantial cases against innocent people. It would be similar to requiring fingerprinting from everyone so that we can solve every crime, which is not only a presumption of guilt, but an avenue for false positives. Next you are defending yourself from the very government that you fund. What people will do to feel safe is absolutely scary to me. "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."
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