Cop Vehicle Tracking Spreads; U.S. Isn’t a Police State But Has the Technology


Police and private companies are rapidly adopting surveillance technologies allowing them to track vehicles, reports the Wall Street Journal. At least two start-up companies, both founded by “repo men”—specialists in repossessing cars or property from deadbeats—are 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. Col. Lisa Shay, a professor of electrical engineering at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who studies tracking, says, “What would the 1950s Soviet Union have done with the technology we have now? We don’t have a police state in this country, but we have the technology.”

Law-enforcement agents say they use this information only to catch bad guys. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has distributed more than $50 million 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 International Association of Chiefs of Police warns that “recording driving habits” could raise First Amendment concerns. It says 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 “more specific criteria for granting access” to the information and to designate it only for “official use.”

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