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Springfield: Car Stalk

Does license-plate scanning technology make surveillance too easy?

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Last year, Springfield City Councilor Tim Rooke says, John O'Brien of Rock 102's Bax and O'Brien Show passed on to him an interesting news article. The article described a new technology, used in several Connecticut cities, that allows police to quickly scan the license plates of large numbers of cars and then check the information against records of stolen cars, outstanding warrants and other criminal matters.

A fairly new product, the license plate scanners are already used in a number of communities, including Los Angeles, Orleans County, N.Y., and Palm Beach, Fla. In New England, police departments in Somerville, Mass. and New Haven and New Britain, Conn. have adopted the technology.

Rooke hopes to see Springfield join that list. He plans to ask city officials to invest in several license plate scanners for use by both city police and tax collectors. The scanners—which cost about $20,000 a pop—would quickly pay for themselves through the collection of delinquent excise taxes, Rooke said. And that's not even factoring in the public safety benefits, which would allow the police to do investigative work much faster and more efficiently, he added.

But it's that efficiency that gives some observers pause. As more and more communities adopt the license plate scanners, questions are raised about the wisdom of granting the government such far-reaching powers to surveil citizens who are not crime suspects.

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Rooke will bring his proposal for the license-plate scanners to the city's Productivity Bank, which was set up during the tenure of the Springfield Finance Control Board to provide loans to city departments for the startup costs of revenue-generating projects. Rooke plans to ask for funding for four scanners—about $80,000 total. The Springfield Police Department already owns one scanner, he noted.

ELSAG North America, a license-plate scanner manufacturer based in Brewster, N.Y., claims its equipment is used by more than 500 agencies in 34 states. The company offers mobile units, which can be mounted on police cars, and fixed units, which can be attached to bridges and other structures. The unit automatically scans the license plates of passing or parked vehicles, which can be checked against a connected records database.

ELSAG says that its scanners can recognize plates from all 50 states, Mexico and Canada as well as reading "many Arabic characters," and can capture the information from as many as 3,600 plates per minute.

"The information gathered by the [scanner] (color image of license plate and back of car, date and time stamps, GPS coordinates) can also be stored for analysis at any time," according to ELSAG's website. "Reviewing data for relevant periods of time can help lead to witness identification, hot list development, pattern recognition, and terrorist interdiction."

In many communities, the scanners are used primarily as law enforcement tools, allowing the police to quickly search for stolen cars, unregistered cars, or drivers with outstanding warrants. Rooke also suggested that police could use the scanners outside known trouble spots in the city; if a crime is committed in that area, the police would quickly be able to identify all the cars that were parked in the area at the time, whose owners might be witnesses or suspects.

Because the units are portable, Rooke said, other city departments could use them as well—making them a potential revenue-generating tool. He envisions the city Collector/Treasurer's office using the scanners to identify cars whose owners owe the city excise tax—a not insignificant number: according to figures from that office, outstanding excise bills since 1988 total just under $7 million.

The city, of course, will never collect all that money, noted Paul Foster, director of Springfield's CitiStat program; many of those cars are now probably in a salvage yard or scrap heap somewhere. But figures from recent years suggest there's a substantial amount of excise tax the city could collect for vehicles that are still on the road. The delinquent excise taxes for 2009 total almost $1 million, said Foster, who noted that some of that will likely be paid off by the end of the year. In 2008, $564,000 in excise taxes went unpaid.

Vehicle owners who fail to pay their excise taxes after repeated warnings could see their vehicles seized by the city if a second proposal by Rooke passes. At its Dec. 21 meeting (after the Advocate's deadline), the City Council was expected to vote on home-rule legislation that would allow the city to tow these vehicles and hold them until the bills are paid.

Because the proposal was not submitted to the Council office before last week's deadline for agenda items, Rooke will need a suspension of rules to add it to the Dec. 21 agenda. If passed by the Council, it will also need the approval of the state Legislature.

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So far, the proposal to use license-plate scanners in Springfield has met with little, if any, opposition.

But in other communities, the technology has met with some degree of skepticism. When the New Britain Police Department adopted the scanners this year, Alderman Phil Sherwood told the Hartford Advocate he found the technology to be "very Orwellian." Still, he voted in favor of buying the equipment, saying his city needed the tax money it could help claim. "It's sad municipalities have to push the envelope for revenue," Sherwood told the paper.

When Tiburon, Calif., considered locating scanners along its city limits to track suspected burglars, a spokesperson for the California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union raised concerns in the San Francisco Chronicle: "To be under investigation simply because you entered or left Tiburon at a certain time is incredibly intrusive. ... Innocent people should be able to go about their daily lives without being tracked and monitored." And last year, when officials in New York City began discussing scanning the plates of all vehicles entering Manhattan—part of its post-9/11 security strategy—the legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union told the Daily News that the plan amounted to "the blanket, indiscriminate videotaping of millions of people," adding "The NYPD should not be spending $100 million of public money [a figure that included other technology, such as security cameras] to track law-abiding New Yorkers."

Christopher Ott, communications manager for the ACLU of Massachusetts, told the Valley Advocate that his organization doesn't object to the use of license plate scanning technology if it's used for legitimate and narrowly defined purposes, from locating tax scofflaws to certain criminal investigations.

"There's nothing new about police being able to check a particular license plate, except that they used to do it by hand," Ott said. "Technology that speeds this up is not necessarily bad."

But there are important questions that need to be asked about how this relatively new technology, and the data it collects, is used, Ott added.

The scanners have the ability to "scoop up" thousands of license plates in a very short time and create powerful databases containing information about where individual drivers are at specific times, regardless of whether they owe taxes, are crime suspects or are otherwise of legitimate interest to the police.

"We're concerned about the creation of databases to track people generally," Ott said. In some communities, critics have raised concerns about whether the police might, for instance, use scanners to create a list of people who attend a political rally.

And there are other questions. Who would have access to the data? How long would it be stored? Would it be considered a public record and therefore available to anyone who sought access to it, from the media to marketers to a jealous ex? What measures would be taken against security breaches?

"We have been trying to raise these questions about what communities are really getting into if they start using this, and what are the potential risks to people's privacy," Ott said.

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Rooke believes the license plate scanners would greatly benefit the city without invading the privacy rights of its residents. "This is more of an efficiency tool than an invasive tool, because right now the police have the same capability as the technology," he said. The difference is, he said, rather than officers running a plate or two on the cruiser's laptop while stopped at a red light, the scanners would run thousands of plates in minutes for them, while they could keep their eyes on the road.

Bruce Schneier, a security expert who's written widely on the topic, agrees that there's little difference between what individual officers and the scanners can do, other than the efficiency with which they do it. But that alone is cause for concern, Schneier wrote in an editorial published in the New Haven Register in 2004, when that city began using the scanners.

"Technology is fundamentally changing the nature of surveillance," wrote Schneier. In the past, surveillance was a labor-intensive task performed by people, and therefore "was only used when there was reasonable suspicion of a crime." Today, scanners, cameras and other technology allow police to track people, and create databases of information, with minimal effort. "It's wholesale surveillance," he wrote. "And it disrupts the balance between the powers of the police and the rights of the people. ...

"The effect of wholesale surveillance on privacy and civil liberties is profound; but unfortunately, the debate often gets mischaracterized as a question about how much privacy we need to give up in order to be secure," Schneier continued. While he doesn't dispute that these new methods can promote public safety, careful measures need to be in place to make sure the technology itself is not abused—for instance, requirements that data collected on innocent drivers be promptly erased, or that drivers can have access to the data collected about them.

Ott, of the ACLU of Massachusetts, agrees that limits should be placed on the use of data collected by the scanners, including a prohibition on sharing the information with private companies.

With the increasing use of scanners, cameras and other public surveillance devices, Ott said, "We're just concerned in general that we've moved a long way to becoming a surveillance society.

"We think there are legitimate uses for some of this technology, for enforcing the law and keeping people safe," he continued. "But it's important to ask questions about what kind of society we want to become. Do we want to be under surveillance all the time? ... We think it's possible to remain both safe and free."

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