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?

  1. Listen Daily Circuit: ACLU warns privacy at risk from license-plate readers

    July 22, 2013

  • Jeff

    Bob – Do you have any info about the cameras that were set up for the 2008 RNC in St. Paul and are still there? Who is watching them? Why?

  • I spent a fair amount of time trying to get answers to these questions this spring, but ultimately I couldn’t afford to devote the time to putting together the articles if I had to pay for it out of my pocket.

    But among other things I did learn that a lot of suburban municipalities here use these scanners and how long the images are kept and whether they’ve shared with other law enforcement agencies are still open questions.

    Lakeville has several officers whose primary job is “driving enforcement,” which really means driving around scanning plates until they find someone to pull over. Eagan police routinely drive through hotel parking lots, using the scanners to run all the plates to find people with outstanding warrants. Each department utilizes them differently and there aren’t a lot of guidelines to limit their use.

    This is really a great enterprise reporting story and I hope someone steps up to give it the attention it deserves. The first step would be to run that plate and see who the car is registered to. This rig seems to be set up more for database collection than pure law enforcement, since you’d have to have other cars nearby to nab offenders captured by the scanners. But if’s database collection, then why? I know that Homeland Security has experimented with putting license plate scanners on some interstates, trying to track certain drivers. But those tend to be fixed cameras mounted on utility poles or other low-profile locations.

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    I wonder if a normal person could get away with putting that set up on his or her car? The highway is a public place.

  • tboom

    I’m amazed by what the public thinks is important. As of a few years ago cities refused to use “photo cop” for red light violations because of public outrage and threats of lawsuits. If photo cop is now being used it remains rare. But nobody (Bob excluded) seems concerned about the wholesale logging, without probable cause, of where and when you are in a certain location (and the lack of policy concerning cross-referencing that information).

    I guess the potential cost of running a red light higher than the actual cost of a lost civil liberty.

  • Minnesota Madman

    Welcome to the Soviet State of Minnesota. The Police State is a by product of communism. Damn you all.