WSJ: New Tracking Frontier: Your License Plates
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.”
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. Private companies are joining, too. At least two start-up companies, both founded by “repo men”—specialists in repossessing cars or property from deadbeats—are currently deploying camera-equipped cars nationwide to photograph people’s license plates, hoping to profit from the data they collect.
The rise of license-plate tracking is a case study in how storing and studying people’s everyday activities, even the seemingly mundane, has become the default rather than the exception. Cellphone-location data, online searches, credit-card purchases, social-network comments and more are gathered, mixed-and-matched, and stored in vast databases.
Data about a typical American is collected in more than 20 different ways during everyday activities, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. Fifteen years ago, more than half of these types of surveillance tools were unavailable or not in widespread use, says Col. Lisa Shay, a professor of electrical engineering at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who studies tracking.
“What would the 1950s Soviet Union have done with the technology we have now?” says Col. Shay. “We don’t have a police state in this country, but we have the technology.”
Law-enforcement agents say they are using this information only to catch bad guys.
During the past five years, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has distributed more than $50 million in federal grants to law-enforcement agencies—ranging from sprawling Los Angeles to little Crisp County, Ga., pop. 23,000—for automated license-plate recognition systems. A 2010 study estimates that more than a third of large U.S. police agencies use automated plate-reading systems.
The information captured is considerable. Through a public-records act request, The Journal obtained two years’ worth of plate information from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in California. From Sept. 10, 2010, to Aug. 27, 2012, the sheriff’s cameras captured about 6 million license-plate scans.
The sheriff’s 49 camera-equipped vehicles scanned about 2 million unique plates. The average plate in the database was scanned three times over the two-year period. Less than 1% of plates were tracked extensively—hundreds of times, and occasionally thousands.
First Amendment Issues
A report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police warns that “recording driving habits” could raise First Amendment concerns. It noted that plate readers might record “vehicles parked at addiction-counseling meetings, doctors’ offices, health clinics, or even staging areas for political protests.” The association urged members to consider establishing “more specific criteria for granting access” to the information and to designate it only for “official use.”
License-plate databases contain revealing information about people’s locations. Police can generally obtain it without a judge’s approval. By comparison, prosecutors typically get a court order to install GPS trackers on people’s cars or to track people’s location via cellphone.
License-plate databases don’t contain names and addresses of vehicle owners, although that information is available from separate state Department of Motor Vehicle databases. The Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, passed in 1994 to thwart stalkers, limits public access to the DMV’s information but nevertheless allows car owners’ names and addresses to be obtained by government agencies, police, private investigators, insurers, researchers, private toll operators and, in some states, journalists. The data is still sometimes subject to abuse.
In 1998, for instance, a police lieutenant in Washington, D.C., pleaded guilty to extortion after looking up the plates of vehicles near a gay bar and blackmailing the vehicle owners.
Araby Williams/The Wall Street JournalA license-plate-reading camera
“I’m terrified that someone could get hurt because of this data,” says Mike Griffin, a Baltimore auto repossession agent who uses his own fleet of camera-equipped cars to collect about a million plates a month.
Mr. Griffin says he takes extensive security measures with the data, which he contributes to a private national database.
These private databases, each containing hundreds of millions of plates, could become the largest collection of people’s movements within the U.S., says Mary Ellen Callahan, former chief privacy officer for the Department of Homeland Security. “You could have a nationwide vision of where I was at a given time,” says Ms. Callahan, who now runs the privacy practice at law firm Jenner & Block.
Law-enforcement officers say they use the technology to track down stolen cars, collect unpaid tickets and identify the vehicles of suspected criminals.
The two private plate-tracking companies identified by the Journal both say they act responsibly and are within their rights to collect the data. Scott A. Jackson, founder of MVConnect LLC, the parent company of one of the two firms, says he won’t sell the data to the public or to marketers.
He says the plate trackers are simply shooting video in public, something that is perfectly legal. “I take absolute exception to any government telling me that I can’t go into public and take video,” Mr. Jackson says. “That’s taking my freedoms away.” He estimates his company has snapped “hundreds of millions” of photos of plates nationwide.
License-plate readers spread in the late 1960s, when film cameras were installed at some intersections to identify red-light runners. Since then, the cameras, software and computer storage have improved, and prices have fallen. This makes storing and working with large license-plate photo databases affordable and realistic.
The price of one gigabyte of storage fell to $1.68 this year from $18.95 in 2005, a decline of 91%, according to market-research firm IDC. It is expected to cost just pennies in a few years. Similarly, digital cameras and the software that can “read” letters and numbers from photos are improving dramatically.
Italian defense contractor Finmeccanica SpA introduced plate-recognition cameras to the U.S. in 2004 via its subsidiary, Elsag North America. The technology originally was used to sort mail by reading addresses. Today, a standard two-camera system mounted on a police car costs $15,000, down from $25,000 originally, says Mark Windover, Elsag’s chief executive.
Cynthia Lum, a professor at George Mason University, did a study in 2010 estimating that about 37% of large police departments were using plate readers. “It’s one of the most rapidly diffusing technologies that I’ve ever seen,” says Ms. Lum, a former police officer and deputy director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy.
A few states have guidelines for using the scanners. New Hampshire bans them. Maine requires data to be purged after 21 days unless it is part of an investigation. New Jersey requires officers to have “specific and articulable facts” of “possible criminal or terrorist activity” before looking up a car owner.
Some towns have turned down the systems. “It went beyond my sense of what we needed to do to make us safer,” says Neil Fulton, the town manager of Norwich, Vt., pop. 3,414, which rejected a grant for a plate reader in April.
But many departments embrace the technology. The sheriff’s department in Riverside County, Calif., which is home to about 2.2 million people, has been using automated plate readers since 2007. According to Riverside County Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Lisa McConnell, “The database is available to any of our officers in the furtherance of their professional duties.” The department intends to keep the records indefinitely, she says.
The Journal obtained the database (minus each car’s location) through a public records act request. The tracking system isn’t perfect. “It picks up any words on a reflective background,” says Gary Schreiner, a technician at the sheriff’s department.
As a result, some common road signs show up in the database. “ONEWAY” appears 13,873 times. In addition, some of the most-tracked plates were other government vehicles, which are identifiable by their special tags in California.
Some Riverside County residents voiced surprise that their plates are being captured. “Not knowing about it makes me feel a little uneasy,” says Virginia Rose, an 86-year-old resident of Idyllwild. Her plate appears in the database four times.
Still, she said she figured it was helpful for the police. “Usually I go along with whatever police enforcement needs to do to keep us safe, so I figure they must have people stealing cars and that sort of thing,” she says.
Officers can also tap private license-plate location databases such as the two being built by former repossession agents, Digital Recognition Network Inc. of Fort Worth, Texas, and MVTrac of Palatine, Ill., a unit of MVConnect.
MVTrac’s Mr. Jackson, spent more than 20 years in the repossession business, says that at first he saw plate readers simply as a way to help find cars he was trying to repossess. Then he realized the opportunity to build a national network.
He began installing cameras on the vehicles of other auto-recovery agents, who pay subscription fees to use the cameras. MVTrac says hundreds of its systems are operating nationwide. The camera systems give drivers an instant alert when they scan a car wanted for repossession. The alert doesn’t include the owner’s identity. Agents also get a commission when a finance company buys data about a plate they scanned.
Brian L. Frank for The Wall Street JournalLocal police kept a sizable file on the locations of Mike Katz-Lacabe’s cars, above, using license-plate-reading camera.
One of MVTrac’s biggest customers is Mr. Griffin in Baltimore, whose company, Final Notice & Recovery LLC, has plate-recognition systems on 10 vehicles. Mr. Griffin employs drivers working two shifts, day and night, driving each car 300 to 400 miles a day, scanning plates in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., areas.
A retired Baltimore police officer, Patrick Wilson, leads Final Notice’s team of “night spotters,” who drive after dark, scanning plates. Their black vehicles have tinted windows and hood-mounted cameras. They canvas alleys, parking lots and apartment complexes to scan as many vehicles as possible.
When the night spotters find a car wanted for repossession, they call in a tow truck. They can now repossess about 15 cars a night, Mr. Wilson says, up from about six per night before using the technology.
Final Notice has amassed a database of 19 million historical locations of vehicles in and around Maryland and Washington. Mr. Griffin provides police free access to location information about vehicles in stolen-car or missing-person cases, among others, he says.
Soon he hopes to start selling access to his plate data to bail bondsmen, process servers, private investigators and insurers. “In the next five years, I hope my primary business will be data gathering,” he says.
The plates scanned by people such as Mr. Griffin are contributed to Mr. Jackson’s central MVTrac database. Mr. Jackson declined to be specific about the total number of scans in the database, but says, “We have [photographs of] a large majority” of registered vehicles in the U.S.
Until recently, rival company Vigilant Solutions, a subsidiary of Digital Recognition Network, provided a counter on its website tallying its plate-scanning database. The latest read: about 700 million scans.
DRN says on its website that it can “combine automotive data such as where millions of people drive their cars…with household income and other valuable information” so companies can “pinpoint consumers more effectively.” DRN declined to comment.
Mr. Jackson says he hasn’t decided what to do with his database but will be guided by the 1994 federal law governing access to drivers’ personal data. “We’re not going to allow somebody to access the data to track a girlfriend, track a wife,” he says.
Instead, he says he is more likely to use it to help officers track down fugitives, execute warrants and collect parking tickets. He says he is in no rush to sell the data. “Every day it just gets more valuable because we collect more information.”
Araby Williams/The Wall Street JournalLuke Smith of MVTrac, a plate-tracking start-up company founded by a ‘repo man.’
Battle Over a Bill
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.
The tracking of innocent people’s license plates bothers people like Mr. Katz-Lacabe, a computer security consultant in San Leandro. He heard about the technology at a city council meeting there.
In 2010, Mr. Katz-Lacabe filed a California Public Records Act request for his data from the local police. He received a report containing 112 images of his vehicles dating to 2008. The file contained 107 photos of his Tercel and five of his Toyota Prius, which he says is driven less frequently.
“I was surprised there were some pictures where I could actually identify people,” Mr. Katz-Lacabe says, looking at the images. “Here’s one where I’m driving. Here’s me in my Cal shirt.”
San Leandro, with a population of about 85,000, had one Federal Signal license-plate reader installed on a police car in 2008 and installed a newer, better one this year, says Police Chief Sandra Spagnoli. She says the technology has helped locate hundreds of stolen cars and solve other crimes.
Recently, she says, a homicide suspect from Las Vegas drove through town—and the scanner spotted his plate. “He took us on a pursuit, and we caught him,” she says. “We would not have been able to do that without that system.”
Her department plans to retain the data indefinitely, Ms. Spagnoli says. “It’s irresponsible if you have something that could solve a crime in the future, and you’ve dumped it.”
The Wall Street Journal is conducting a long-running investigation into the transformation of personal privacy in America.
- Google bypassed the privacy settings on millions of Web browsers on Apple iPhones and computers— tracking the online activities of people who intended that kind of monitoring to be blocked. (2/17/12)
- The government follows the movements of thousands of Americans a year by secretly monitoring their cellphone records . (9/9/11)
- iPhone and Android apps secretly shared data about their users, a Journal investigation found. (12/10/10)
- Top apps on Facebook transmit personal identifying details to tracking companies, a Journal investigation found. (10/18/10)
- One of the fastest growing online businessesis that of spying on Americans as they browse the Web. (6/30/10)
- Plus, the global surveillance bazaar , a secretive phone-tracking “stingray” and RapLeaf’s clever way of figuring out Web surfers’ real names