Woodland police's new license plate reader raises privacy concerns
New technology installed in a Woodland Police cruiser will assist cops in finding stolen vehicles, but it also has some raising eyebrows about the Big Brother-style of surveillance.
This CarDetector Mobile License Plate Reader from Vigilant Solutions alerts officers to tagged plates associated with major crimes, such as vehicle theft, stolen license plates or vehicles wanted specifically in association with a crime or suspect.
This is the third week Woodland's license plate reader has been in operation.
"This is for serious crimes, not for infractions," said Capt. George Bierwirth. "The system would be inundated otherwise."
The reader recognizes license plates in the camera's field of view, matches the numbers against various hotlists, and alerts the officer on the vehicle's mobile data terminal or laptop, according to Vigilant Solutions website.
License plate captures include a color image of the vehicle, an infrared image of the license plate, the license plate read as interpreted by the system, a time and date stamp, GPS coordinates of the vehicle making the license plate capture, as well as information on the operator and the camera making the capture.
There is no personally identifiable information contained in a license plate capture, such as social security numbers or health records.
Anytime there's a wanted vehicle that has been entered into the system, the reader will alert officers, said Public Safety Chief Dan Bellini. In addition to theft, this can extend to Amber Alerts and restraining order details.
The license plate reader, which operates constantly whether or not there an officer inside the patrol car, may come into play when investigating crime scenes as well, according to Bellini.
Detectives will be able to know whether people of interest are driving by the scene, for example.
This "Big Brother" type of scrutiny has brought up concerns, but Bellini said the department's "primary interest is to listen for the wanted vehicles."
However, as license plate readers are increasing throughout the nation, so is the interest of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"When law enforcement is collecting information 'just in case it's useful,' (that's) causing some alarms around here," said Chris Conley, technology and civil liberties attorney with Northern California's ACLU branch.
"The concern essentially is police and law enforcement should simply not be in the business of monitoring the comings and goings of thousands of innocent drivers," Conley said. "They should be focused on investigating crimes that have occurred, and not tracking people who have no relation to criminal activity whatsoever."
Said Conley: "It's particularly concerning when the information about innocent drivers is collected, stored and shared, and used for purposes that are not clearly understood or defined."
At the end of July, ACLU affiliates in 38 states, including Northern California, sent public record act requests to local police departments and state agencies that demand information on how they use automatic license plate readers to track and record Americans' movements.
Some questions the ACLU wants answered include how long the information is being retained, who is retaining it and what's being shared, said Conley.
"We have the right to understand how these devices are being used and what is being done with the information," Conley said.
When asked if the plate readers violate an individual's rights, Conley said it's somewhat borderline. In particular, he cited the Fourth Constitutional Amendment and the Right to Privacy Act of California.
"Seeing someone (drive) down the street once is OK under the Constitution, but using license plate readers to continuously monitor people over a period of time may not be constitutionally acceptable," Conley said.
Until now, the only license plate reader used in Yolo County was utilized by SacCats, a regional auto theft program in conjunction with other law enforcement agencies, said Bellini.
Woodland police are using the same license plate reader system as other area agencies, such as Sacramento and Elk Grove police departments, so they are all reaching into the same database.
The goal is to have the license plate reader in operation 24 hours per day, through the department's three daily shifts.
The Vigilant Solutions hosted server houses more than 825 million license plate reads, and grows between 35-50 million reads each month, as of August 2012, according to the company's website.
The private data that is shared with Vigilant Solutions' hosted solution comes from a number of sources. The largest source of data is from Digital Recognition Network, a partner company to Vigilant that is exclusively focused on data derived from vehicles.
Digital Recognition Network collects data on up to 50 million vehicles each month including capturing, storing and grouping data on vehicle location, where vehicles go and who drives them. This data is shared with Vigilant's National Vehicle Location Service for use by law enforcement.
The equipment now used by Woodland PD was funded through a $3,000 financial contribution from Target's Northern California Distribution Center stationed in Woodland, coupled with monies set aside from car registration fees specifically earmarked for vehicle theft return efforts.
"We're very thankful for Target's willingness to partner with us," said Bellini.
Previously, Target's Northern California Distribution Center has supported the police department's SWAT and bike teams.
"Target is always happy to support the law enforcement that assists our community," said Taylor Nelson, Target's assets protection group leader.
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