The Seattle Times reports on the spreading use of license plate readers, viewed as an effective multipurpose policing tool by law enforcers and by skeptics as yet another way in which Big Brother is watching. In Seattle, millions of plate images captured by cameras mounted atop a Parking Enforcement minivan are entered into a police department database where, for the three months before they are destroyed, they are available for use in criminal investigations.
Automatic license-plate readers have been in the arsenal of large police departments for nearly a decade, but are now getting new scrutiny amid broader concerns about government surveillance. In Seattle, which piloted the technology in 2006, public records indicate 12 police units collected about 7 million license-plate records last year, identifying 426 stolen cars and 3,768 vehicles with at least four unpaid parking tickets. Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union published a critical report on the use of plate readers.