The technology has raised alarms among civil libertarians, who say it threatens the privacy of drivers. It's also evidence that 21st-century technology may be evolving too quickly for the courts and public opinion to keep up. The U.S. Supreme Court is only now addressing whether investigators can secretly attach a GPS monitoring device to cars without a warrant.
A ruling in that case has yet to be handed down, but a telling exchange occurred during oral arguments. Chief Justice John Roberts asked lawyers for the government if even he and other members of the court could feasibly be tracked by GPS without a warrant. Yes, came the answer.
Meanwhile, police around the country have been affixing high-tech scanners to the exterior of their patrol cars, snapping a picture of every passing license plate and automatically comparing them to databases of outstanding warrants, stolen cars and wanted bank robbers.
The units work by sounding an in-car alert if the scanner comes across a license plate of interest to police, whereas before, patrol officers generally needed some reason to take an interest in the vehicle, like a traffic violation.
But when a license plate is scanned, the driver's geographic location is also recorded and saved, along with the date and time, each of which amounts to a record or data point. Such data collection occurs regardless of whether the driver is a wanted criminal, and the vast majority are not.
While privacy rules restrict what police can do with their own databases, Vigilant Video, headquartered in Livermore, Calif., offers a loophole. It's a private business not required to operate by those same rules.
The company sells its own brand of license-plate readers and has customers around the nation, including in Springfield, Ill.; Kings Point, N.Y.; and Orange, Conn. But Vigilant distinguished itself from competitors by going one step further and collecting hundreds of millions of scans to create what's known as the National Vehicle Location Service.
A West Coast sales manager for the company, Randy Robinson, said the scanners -- as well as data from them compiled in the location system -- do far more than simply help identify stolen vehicles. Stories abound of the technology also being used by police to stop wanted killers, bank robbers and drug suspects. Kidnappers could be intercepted, too.
"I just sit back and think, 'Who would want to thwart officers from doing their jobs more effectively, faster, more efficiently?' If it was your son or daughter (missing), what would you say?"
Robinson isn't troubled by the thought of his own data being compiled, and he said others shouldn't worry either if they haven't violated the law. After all, he said, police could even track him down if necessary. He also pointed out that there's nothing wrong with Vigilant taking what amounts to public photographs.
While some technology makes it safer for police to perform their jobs or enables them to more easily share information, license-plate recognition has the potential to both transform public safety for the better and undermine rules designed to protect law-abiding Americans from police overreach.
"It's no different than if you have an officer that manually enters tags," argued Capt. Johnny Jennings of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina. "They've automated this ability to where (the scanner) actually runs the tag for you and compares it to a variety of databases. ... We were able to come through with some significant reductions in stolen vehicles."
Just one patrol officer can log information for thousands of cars in a single shift. Multiply that by an ever-growing number of police departments adopting the technology -- often with help from homeland security grants and funds from President Barack Obama's 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- and the result is an extraordinary volume of data on motorists.
With enough scans, a portrait of your habits begins to emerge, making it a valuable intelligence tool police can use to determine where and when cars were scanned.
"We think once those snapshots become sufficiently dense, it rises to the level of the equivalent of GPS tracking," said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union. "Each snapshot of a license plate is a pixel. How many pixels do you need before you have a photograph?"
Lee Tien agrees. He's a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco and said the ability of police to identify perpetrators in real time is less worrisome than the stockpiling of historic driver data.
"Any time you're talking about movements in public which you can archive, or any data you can archive over time, then it's like a way-back machine. 'Gee, we'll be able to reconstruct the movements of your car or your cell phone,' " Tien said. " ... It's incredibly revealing, so I think it's pretty clear this is a big issue."
The potential value of this new law enforcement tool is undeniable, however
Auto thefts at Sacramento's Arden Fair mall have dropped from 77 in 2006, before private security deployed license-plate scanners there, to just eight in 2011. Steve Reed, a retired police officer now serving as the mall's security chief, used $50,000 in federal homeland security grants to purchase four scanners.
Through a unique partnership with the Sacramento Police Department, Reed said, 68 stolen vehicles were recovered at the mall, and 46 arrests have been made since early 2009.
"If a child was abducted here -- which hasn't happened -- and they only had a partial plate and knew it was a yellow car, (police) have the capability to go in there and put in the partial plate and go through all the pictures of cars we've seen and then actually find the car," Reed said.
One man now sits in an Arkansas federal correctional facility after he was linked to a stolen car at the mall -- also found in his possession were multiple credit cards, ATM cards, Social Security cards and altered checks belonging to victims of mail theft. In another case, authorities broke up a retail theft ring after an in-car alert at the mall led them to a group of people shoplifting inside. A later search of the trunk revealed thousands more in stolen goods.
Arden Fair officials get rid of the records they generate after 30 days, simply because Reed can't store them all. His guards also do not search across historical data -- the watchers can merely wait to be alerted if they've happened upon a license plate of interest.
Jennings of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department said four of his cruisers today have scanners deployed, and the department began using them about five years ago during a surge in stolen vehicles. One of his detectives managed to collar an auto-burglary suspect with just a partial plate. But the technology isn't a catch-all. The department simultaneously launched a public information campaign teaching drivers how to prevent auto theft from occurring in the first place, Jennings said.
His department also destroys irrelevant records after 180 days and does not have the ability to search data nationwide through the National Vehicle Location Service.
Roughly 1,200 new users working in law enforcement are signed up to search the location system every month, and agencies don't have to be a customer of Vigilant, nor do they have to contribute their own data, company sales manager Robinson said. It's free to the law enforcement community and amounts to a spectacular form of advertising for Vigilant.
Police aren't the only ones contributing to the database's size.
Additional records are flowing in from private auto repossession companies that specialize in tracking down debtors no longer making payments on their cars. Imagine tow trucks armed with scanners cruising through apartment complexes and along residential streets, simultaneously searching for delinquent borrowers and generating new leads if a motorist in the future stops paying his or her note.
Some could argue it's not unlike Google's Street View, except that far fewer people have ever heard of Vigilant Video and its participating fleet of 2,000 so-called "scout" cars. Robinson is quick to emphasize that only authorized law enforcement agencies can search data generated by both private scout cars and patrol vehicles.
"What's extraordinary to me are the types of cases that are being solved," Robinson said. "(Police) can go back and say, 'Who was in the area? Who was in the neighborhood?' They can call that person up and question them and say, 'Look, I've got a rape victim. You're a known serial rapist or a rapist who just got out on parole. Why were you two blocks away on that night?' "
Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)