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How license plate databases track your every move

License plate scanning technology has been around for decades - the British police originally adopted it in the 1970s to track the Irish Republican Army members, but it only came into wide use in the last decade as cheaper but highly effective models became available. These scanners use high-speed cameras and optical character recognition technology to capture up to 1,800 plates per minute, even at high rates of speed and in difficult driving conditions. The scanner also records the date, time, and GPS location of each scan. The explosive growth of license plate readers and large police-compiled databases that store information about  for arbitrary periods of time probably going up to indefinitely period of time. One of the problems with this practice is that different states have different policies on how such data can be used and shared — some states put strict controls on the use of this information, while others have what amounts to an open door policy on driver information.

License plate readers have become vastly more popular in recent years thanks to falling prices, federal funds, and an aggressive marketing campaign from device manufacturers. In theory, they’re a great way to find stolen property, track fleeing criminals, or keep an eye on felons with a high risk of re-offense. At present, however, there are virtually no limits on data retention, usage, or who has access to the information. As it is getting become more popular, an increasing number of police departments are deploying them on patrol cars as well as at fixed locations.

A license plate can be tagged to a particular vehicle, registered to a specific person. There are two problems with this argument. First, the police aren’t just using these readers to track known criminals — they’re building associative databases of people who have never been charged with any crime on the grounds that such information might be useful in the future. Not only does this have a known chilling effect on people’s actions, it opens the door to profiling groups of people based on the erroneous belief that doing so will help identify future criminals. 

As things stand right now, most of these databases are open to anyone who wants a look at them. Sure, your boss can’t technically fire you for your political affiliation, but he can check and see where your car was when Obama came to town last time, or whether it was picked up outside a polling station on the day of election results. Then, come next performance review, you’re out of a job with no idea why. To read more visit:

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Big Data and privacy concerns
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