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Bruce Maiman: Another growing threat to our privacy

It’s a surveillance tool you’ve probably never heard of, but its growing prevalence sets up yet another battle between privacy rights and technology.

Automated license plate readers are all the rage in law enforcement. Cameras affixed to police cruisers or light poles and street signs capture thousands of plates per minute, stockpiling images, dates, times and even GPS coordinates into huge databases that police check against “hit lists” of cars associated with criminal activity.

Police agencies say it’s giving them a critical jump on ticket scofflaws, felons, missing persons, even people under protection orders. Dozens of users in California include the state Highway Patrol, sheriff’s departments in Orange, Los Angeles and Sacramento counties and the Sacramento, Roseville and Elk Grove police departments.

You’ll also find them at airports or shopping malls such as Arden Fair, where security teams employ two license plate reader-equipped vehicles to patrol the 77-acre property.

“It’s been great for us,” said Steve Reed, a 20-year police veteran and the mall’s security manager. “In 2007, we had 77 auto thefts. Last year, we had eight. This year so far? One.”

However, problems exist. The devices occasionally get false “hits” by misreading license plate numbers and matching innocent drivers with criminal suspects, which leads to improper stops, false arrests and even lawsuits, like a recent San Francisco case now pending in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Such errors likely will increase with the growing reliance on LPRs and an ever-expanding database, nearly all of which is stored and managed by private companies, not the police.

Vigilant Solutions, the market leader in LPR warehousing, is approaching 2.5 billion “hits” on plates, just in the United States, spokesman Brian Shockley told me, meaning that individual plates are recorded constantly, with each hit cataloging numerous times, and new locations, dates and times. The firm is adding 80 million to 100 million new hits each month.

The ACLU claims that Vigilant wants to blend that data with other identification software and information archives. I asked Shockley if that was true. “Not to my knowledge,” he said.

However, internal documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting show that Vigilant indeed wants to merge LPR technology with other information resources and “is pushing a system that eventually could help fuse public records, license plates and facial recognition databases” – anything that can be used to build a database on you, unbeknownst to you.

“LPRs collect anonymous data,” insists Shockley. “There’s no personal information at all connected with an LPR record.”

But at Arden Fair, Reed says that Vigilant’s cameras are so good, “I can see a freckle on a person’s face.”

Who gets that data? What’s done with it?

I believe Reed when he says, “We’re not into stealing people’s information,” but these records are also made available to banks, insurance companies, and who knows who else – all for a fee, which is how companies such as Vigilant profit.

Database errors may not surface until one victimizes you, while other mistakes are beyond our reach because they’re somewhere out there in the digital ether, and suddenly you’re getting all sorts of junk mail.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security wants a private company to amass a database that provides the agency with vast amounts of information from commercial and law enforcement license plate readers. Its proposal, made earlier this year, says nothing about privacy safeguards.

That’s another problem: The law is forever trying to catch up with light-speed advances in technology. LPR users themselves have been slow to react. A report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that only 48 percent of police agencies have developed policies addressing LPR use and privacy.

State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, has struggled to get legislation passed governing private-sector use of such data. Because Vigilant allows police agencies to access their database for free or at very low rates, “law enforcement is doing the bidding for these private companies,” he said, fighting regulatory legislative efforts in 26 states.

“No one wants to prevent law enforcement from using this technology,” Hill said, “but we need a law that strikes a balance between public safety and privacy.”

The Capitol is brimming with backroom battles over the entire breadth of information rumbling across the digital landscape. Companies want that information – and they don’t necessarily want you opting out of giving it to them – so they can sell it to whomever, which brings us right back to the junk in your mailbox.

It appears we’re faced with a sad inevitability: Whether we’re surfing the Internet or driving down the road, privacy is fast becoming passé.