License plate scanners: When does surveillance go too far?

I’ve known about the controversy over license plate scanners on police cars for a long time. Until today, I’d never saw it in action or, as far as I know, been the target.

That changed on the way in to the NewsCut World Headquarters today.

MPR Photo

At first I thought it was a Google street view car, but with the Minnesota plates, I realized quickly that it was the police, identifying everyone else on the road.

MPR Photo

He pulled over at the split between Interstates 94 and 35E and, presumably, scanned all of the license plates of all of the cars that tried not to hit him.

I didn’t feel particularly violated. But I am conflicted about another step in the surveillance society, dominated as it is with the “if you didn’t do anything wrong, what’s the problem?” justification.

Judd Golden, ACLU official in Boulder, Colo., has an answer. Pointing to a Star Tribune report, Golden asked the Boulder City Council for limits on using the data.

These license-plate scanners can capture a photo of not just the license plate. Some of them are now capturing a significant portion of the vehicles, and if it’s a front view, you can see the people. They go up and down the street, and they’re limited only by how long they’re on the road. So what you have is a record of where a vehicle was at during a certain time.

Now, let’s say you’ve retained your records over a period of six months. You can put in a license plate and basically track wherever that person was. Like, ‘Look, he went to the adult book store.’ Or ‘he’s gone to a medical office several times — hmmmm. Wonder what he’s doing there?’ There are all these possible ways they can data mine and use that data to create a record of where people go and what they do.

In fact, I presume the police have a picture of me guilty of distracted driving, since I was taking a picture of them at the time. What’s to prevent getting a citation in the mail at some future time based on these pictures? And is that a bad thing? I shouldn’t be taking pictures while I’m driving.

It’s quite an industry. Seventy-one percent of police departments in the U.S. are using the cameras.

In Minnesota, the State Patrol deletes the records after 48 hours. During that time, I should probably refrain from knocking over a bank in downtown Saint Paul

No state agency regulates how the cameras are used and the Legislature failed in an attempt to dictate how long the records could be retained by any police agency. St. Paul police erase records after 14 days and Minneapolis retains them for a year.

That deletion policy might satisfy privacy advocates, but it still doesn’t answer the long-term question. Most every surveillance tool eventually expands. These started off as being used to find stolen cars, but in parts of the country, they’re an integral part of an overall surveillance system to monitor everyone’s movement. But what’s the next step for them? And how will we know?