But they haven’t been as fast in creating safeguards to prevent data from being misused.
Menlo Park police, who put one such plate reader into operation over the summer, are going to City Council tomorrow to ask for permission to buy three more.
Thanks to grants from the Department of Homeland Security, every Police Department in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties has at least one license plate scanner. But not one department has a policy to regulate their use.
The scanners, usually mounted on top of a police car, automatically takes pictures of every license plate in view. The data, time and location are recorded, too. This data can be analyzed to create a permanent record of where any of us has driven.
“The tracking of people’s location constitutes a significant invasion of privacy, which can reveal many things about their lives, such as what friends, doctors, protests, political events, or churches a person may visit,” the ACLU said in a report in July.
The license plate scanners can help find stolen cars quickly. Police can raise money with the scanners by catching motorists who were late paying their vehicle registration fees or parking tickets.
All a police department has to do is park a police car with a plate scanner near a busy street, and then pull over all scofflaws.
The data local police collect is stored to buy a Homeland Security fusion Center in San Francisco, known as the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center.
The fusion Center signed a $340,000 contract with Palo Alto’s Palantir to construct a database of license plate records from local police departments, according to a report by the Center for investigative reporting.
That same report said that the San Francisco fusion Center will store license plate records for up to two years, regardless of data retention limits set by local police departments.
The police department that feels it should be erasing data on innocent residents sooner than two years will have to battle the fusion Center and Homeland Security.
Growing surveillance state
This issue of collecting license plate data comes at a time when, thanks to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, we now know that the federal government is collecting data about all Americans’ phone calls, emails and credit card transactions.
It seems hopeless for average citizens to fight the federal government over this surveillance. Leaders of both parties favor it, and a large number of Americans believe that NSA surveillance protect us from terrorists.
But while we can feel powerless to take on the federal government, average citizens can have influence on elected city councils, which are supposed to oversee Police Department.
We can demand that our city council’s tell the police to put reasonable restrictions on data collection on innocent citizens by these plate readers. It’s not unreasonable to have police delete data on innocents with in a week of its collection.
Last year, then-state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, introduced a bill that would limit the amount of time local police departments could retain plate data to 60 days unless the agency is using the data to investigate a crime.
The bill died in the legislature after heavy lobbying against it by law enforcement and the manufacturers of plate readers.
It will be used against you
Wolfgang Schmidt, a retired colonel in the former East German secret police known as the Stasi, told the McClatchy news service in July that he was amazed by the amount of information the U.S. government collects on it’s people. “You know, for us, this would have been a dream come true,” Schmidt said.
He said the dark side to gathering such broad, seemingly untargeted amount of information is obvious.
“It is the height of naivete to think that once collected this information won’t be used, “Schmidt said. “This is the nature of secret government organizations. The only way to protect its people’s privacy is not to allow the government to collect their information in the first place.”
To get a sense of how bad things got in communist East Germany, see the movie “The Lives of Others,” which won the Oscar for best foreign language film and 2006.
It’s about the relationship between a Stasi officer and a playwright he’s assigned to spy upon, and how the government uses information to manipulate people and turn them into informants. It’s particularly relevant in light of the Snowden revelations.