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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Who's tracking your license plate - and why?

Every day, the Seattle Police Department sends an arsenal of high tech vehicles into the streets to photograph license plates. Two Parking Enforcement “boot vans” drive through neighborhoods scanning the license plates of parked cars. They’re looking for “scofflaws”--vehicles with four or more unpaid tickets.

In a span of just an hour, Parking Enforcement Officer (P.E.O.) Vince Babcock finds one on Queen Anne with four unpaid parking tickets and another on Capitol Hill with eight unpaid tickets totally $1100. Both cars get booted. Each driver will each have to pay a $145 fee to get the boot released, plus make a down payment on what is owed for past violations.

Parking enforcement also has two sedans, called “E-chalkers” that scan license plates to identify cars that have violated posted time limits. Those cars receive a $39 ticket.

SPD patrol officers are also using the technology-- to go after car thieves. The officers drive special cars equipped with license plate readers. In a nine hour shift, one officer can scan upwards of 6,000 plates.

With each scan a photograph is taken of the license plate and the vehicle’s GPS coordinates are recorded to pinpoint its location.

All of that data doesn’t just disappear. It’s stored in the police department’s servers and can be pulled up later if someone contests a parking ticket. It can also be used by detectives to locate suspects. Sgt. Sean Whitcomb says that rarely happens unless public safety is at risk.

“So, the most serious offenses,” said Whitcomb, “terror attacks, murders, people who are so egregious in their behavior there really is that public safety need.”

SPD doesn’t keep the data indefinitely. Whitcomb said that the police department said it has a strict purge policy.

“The reassurance for the public is, we only keep it for 90 days, so it’s a very short window,” said Whitcomb. Whitcomb said it sometimes takes months for a person challenging a parking ticket to get a court date, so the 90 day retention period makes sense.

It also raises privacy concerns. The ACLU of Washington doesn’t object to the use of the technology, but Communications Director Doug Honig said keeping the data for 90 days is too long.

Honig said license plate data bases, which can show where a car is parked at a certain time day after day, make it far too easy to track a person’s movements. “Do they go to an AA meeting every week? Do they go to a shooting range? Do they go to a certain place of worship? Do they go to a political meeting? If you’re not suspected of a crime, it’s really none of the government’s business to be gathering and keeping this information,” said Honig.

The ACLU is asking the legislature to study the issue and come up with laws limiting how long police departments can keep the data and how they can use it.

SPD has more than a million license plates in its data base at any given time. And there could soon be a lot more.

The police department wants to give every one of its nearly 100 Parking Enforcement Officers a hand held license plate scanner. Instead of chalking tires the old fashioned way, PEO’s would scan plates, then return later to find out if a car has exceeded the posted time limit.

Whitcomb said the Seattle Police Department has no interest in tracking people’s movements and isn’t out to spy on anyone. “We’re not big brother,” he said, “We’re just trying to keep the community safe.”

Honig said that private companies are also scanning plates at malls and office parks and are keeping vast data bases of their own, which only increase privacy concerns.


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