New tracking frontier: Your license plates

As Wichita considers implementing police surveillance cameras in Old Town to combat crime, an article appears in the Wall Street Journal to warn us of the implications of this action.

Wichita has no police surveillance cameras except those protecting the Keeper of the Plains statue environs. But it seems many Wichita leaders are enthusiastic about their installation elsewhere.

The Journal article New Tracking Frontier: Your License Plates focuses on the ability of surveillance cameras being able to recognize automobile license plates: “Until recently it was far too expensive for police to track the locations of innocent people such as Mr. Katz-Lacabe. But as surveillance technologies decline in cost and grow in sophistication, police are rapidly adopting them.”

As it happens, Wichita is actually behind the curve relative to the rest of the country. In 2010 it was estimated that 37 percent of large U.S. police agencies use license plate recognition cameras. Private agencies are joining in, mostly in an attempt to find cars subject to repossession.

Curiously, the data in the police databases may be subject to public records requests. The Journal obtained California records that way, although the location data was removed. The cameras in Wichita may be paid for by a public-private partnership, which leads to questions as to who owns the collected data, and who may use it for what purposes. But given the weak public records law in Kansas and the hostility of Wichita officials to fulfilling citizen records requests, this may not be a concern. (Or maybe not.)

Once police have cameras installed and have created computer systems and databases, they don’t want to give up their access to this data, writes the Journal:

This year California State Sen. Joe Simitian introduced legislation to limit retention of automatic plate-recognition records by private contractors to 60 days and require officers to have a warrant to access the data.

Sen. Simitian argued the police should have probable cause to get information about the location of people’s cars. “Should a cop who thinks you’re cute have access to your daily movements for the past 10 years without your knowledge or consent?” he says. “I think the answer to that question should be ‘no.’”

Private companies and law-enforcement agencies vehemently opposed the bill, saying it would create an “overwhelming burden” on police departments and would cut into revenue from unpaid parking tickets. Mr. Simitian eventually abandoned his legislation.

There may be those who will be assured that their privacy is not at risk because the data is in police hands and can’t be accessed by private citizens. But government agencies are the cause of many personal data breaches, with negligence by employees the leading cause.

While Wichita may have no current plans to implement the license plate reading system described here, once started the increasing surveillance state in Wichita will be difficult to control. Especially if it seems the cameras can control crime in Old Town.

New Tracking Frontier: Your License Plates

By Julia Angwin and Jennifer Valentino-Devries

For more than two years, the police in San Leandro, Calif., photographed Mike Katz-Lacabe’s Toyota Tercel almost weekly. They have shots of it cruising along Estudillo Avenue near the library, parked at his friend’s house and near a coffee shop he likes. In one case, they snapped a photo of him and his two daughters getting out of a car in his driveway.

Mr. Katz-Lacabe isn’t charged with, or suspected of, any crime. Local police are tracking his vehicle automatically, using cameras mounted on a patrol car that record every nearby vehicle — license plate, time and location.

“Why are they keeping all this data?” says Mr. Katz-Lacabe, who obtained the photos of his car through a public-records request. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”

Continue reading at The Wall Street Journal (subscription required).


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