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Rolling Surveillance 

Guilty or not, law enforcement license plate readers track and compile photos of where you drive

click to enlarge YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak

A steady beeping sounds as Spokane Police Officer Dan Cole cruises down Monroe Street. Equipped with an automatic license plate reader, his patrol car snaps a photo of every vehicle he passes, recording plate numbers, times and GPS locations.

Each beep signals a new license plate being scanned and instantly checked against a statewide database of “flagged” stolen or suspect vehicles.

“I drive around all day with the beep,” Cole says, logging several thousand scans in a shift. “I don’t even notice anymore.”

Any suspicious license plates trigger an alert for the officer, but all vehicles — flagged or not — get logged into an extensive SPD database. As Cole patrols his beat, his reader compiles a sweeping snapshot of local drivers and parked vehicles along his route.

With Spokane’s infamous auto theft problems, police officials consider the plate readers an invaluable tool for recovering stolen vehicles, finding wanted suspects or gathering intelligence on criminal comings and goings.

But while local law enforcement agencies hope to expand their use of plate reader technology, the American Civil Liberties Union last week voiced new concerns about the rapid proliferation of such systems. In a new study called “You Are Being Tracked,” the ACLU warns plate readers give police an unprecedented and overly broad record of who goes where.

“Ordinary people,” the ACLU states, “going about their daily lives have every right to expect that their movements will not be logged into massive government databases.”

Within the past few years, hundreds of local, state and federal agencies have adopted plate reader technology. The Spokane Police Department and Spokane County Sheriff’s Office now run three mobile plate readers mounted to patrol cars. The scanned plate data feeds into a joint server, which both departments can search for driver and location information.

Idaho law enforcement agencies for Post Falls, Coeur d’Alene and Kootenai County also operate a joint system made up of three mobile units, as well as nine stationary plate readers fixed along Interstate 90 and other high-traffic streets.

“It’s a very beneficial program to have,” Spokane Police Cmdr. Joe Walker says. “There’s a lot of uses for it. … That’s why we’re trying to do more.”

Much of the criticism against readers stems from the broad dragnet cast as they scan vehicles. For every worthwhile “hit” on a suspicious plate, the readers scan and record thousands of other law-abiding drivers.

Every license plate scanned — hit or not — gets logged into a searchable database with a record of the time, location, plate number and a photo of the vehicle. Chances are, if you’ve driven Interstate 90 by Post Falls or passed a mobile reader in downtown Spokane, your data is in the system.

In April, a single Spokane Police plate reader scanned more than 46,900 vehicles. Records show just 310 plates registered a hit, a success rate of .66 percent. But most were false hits on bad scans or out-of-state plates with the same numbers as Washington plates on the watch list.

During a recent three-month period, Spokane Police readers scanned more than 123,400 plates, the department reports, resulting in 30 recovered stolen vehicles and three sets of stolen license plates.

Despite the minuscule hit rate, police say plate readers have accelerated stolen vehicle recovery, located dangerous suspects and cracked important cases. Patrolling officers can flag plates for vehicles of interest in local crimes. Investigators can also position readers near a crime scene to track who moves in and out of the area, gathering potentially vital intelligence.

Post Falls Police Chief Scot Haug says the readers often provide other important community searching functions — finding missing persons, scanning for Amber Alert vehicles or locating drivers with outstanding warrants.

“The technology is saving lives,” Haug says. “We have literally dozens and dozens and dozens of cases that I think would not have been solved [otherwise].”

Jamela Debelak, technology director for the ACLU of Washington, says license plate readers can serve as a legitimate law enforcement tool, but they primarily track law-abiding drivers without their knowledge. Many citizens remain unaware of the technology or its implications.

“With any type of surveillance technology, part of the problem is we don’t know about it,” she says. “If you don’t have knowledge of what the government is collecting and tracking, you’re not going to be upset.”

Debelak says massive police databases open the door for institutional abuses. Police could monitor the movements of local activists, officials or journalists, piecing together their driving routines from various reader scans. In New York City, officers reportedly patrolled around mosques to make a record of people attending services.

“Information about all of our driving habits is being stored,” she says. “If there’s no hit, there’s no reason to be storing this information on innocent drivers.”

Few states have regulations on how plate readers can be used, Debelak says. Individual agencies set policy on who can access the collected data and how long the information is kept.

Spokane agencies keep plate data for 90 days unless a specific plate is deemed significant to an ongoing case. Meanwhile, local Idaho agencies keep all plate reader data going back to the start of the program in 2007.

“We retain data indefinitely,” Haug says. “We’ve found that the data is very valuable even a year or two down the road.”

Debelak argues driver data should only be kept as long as necessary to be useful — days or weeks instead of years. Many drivers may shrug off the surveillance, thinking they have nothing to hide, but she says that doesn’t mean the information couldn’t be used against them in unforeseen ways in the future.

“In our society,” the ACLU states, “it is a core principle that the government does not invade its citizens’ privacy and store information about their innocent activities just in case they do something wrong.”

Mobile plate readers, which cost about $21,000 each, have operated locally with little complaint in recent years. Spokane Police Chief Frank Straub has praised their successes, suggesting the department may soon look to install stationary units around the city. In Post Falls, Haug calls plate readers the most important law enforcement tool since DNA testing.

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart says he has ridden with an SPD mobile plate reader and witnessed firsthand how effective can be.

“They’re very functional,” he says. “They provide a very good service.”

Stuckart recently introduced an ordinance to require extra council review of any new police surveillance technology such as drones. He says new stationary readers would require review, but he has no problem with the current units.

Spokane Police Ombudsman Tim Burns also reported his office had not received any complaints or concerns about the local use of plate readers. He called them “amazing technology” that should be used with care.

“The big question is how is it used,” he says. “Not everybody is a criminal.” 

UPDATE: The ACLU has since written a letter asking the City Council to strengthen protections against police surveillance in the proposed ordinance. Here is the ACLU letter as well as an ACLU model ordinance on the issue.  

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