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Automatic License Plate Reader Technology

Automatic License Plate Reader Technology

Earlier today I received a notice from the Portland Police Bureau about their new patrol cars and the Police technology that will be on display for the general public.  It’s a “show-and-tell” exercise for the media.

The demonstration includes the latest in Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR) technology.

Yeah, those quiet mass tracking devices that log license plates and perform driver surveillance!  Cruiser-mounted cameras can scan about 700 license plates an hour.  We’re starting to get a clear picture of the technology deployed for mass routine location tracking and surveillance.

Automatic license plate readers are the most widespread location tracking technology available to law enforcement. Mounted on patrol cars or stationary objects like bridges, they snap photos of every passing car, and motorcycle recording their plate numbers, times, and locations.

At first the captured plate data was used just to check against lists of motorcycles or cars law enforcement hoped to locate for various reasons (to act on arrest warrants, find stolen vehicles, etc.). Increasingly, however, all of this data is being fed into massive databases that contain the location information of many millions of innocent Americans stretching back for months or even years.  In addition, private companies are also using license plate readers and sharing the information they collect with police with little or no oversight or privacy protections.

I’m okay with law enforcement’s use of these systems to take pictures of plates to identify people who are driving stolen cars or are subject to an arrest warrant.  The technology makes it possible to check plates against “hot lists” of vehicles that are of interest to law enforcement. This can be done almost instantaneously and if the plates generate a “hit” I can understand the need to store the data for investigative purposes.

But, how long should the plate data be retained?

Automatic license plate readers have the potential to create permanent records of virtually everywhere any of us has driven.  It could radically transform the consequences of leaving home to pursue private life, and opening up many opportunities for abuse.

In Portland, Or., the data retention rules are a minimum of 30 days to a maximum of 4-years.  More information is HERE.  Like many, I don’t like this growing trend where the government is increasingly using new technology to collect information about American citizens, all the time, and is storing it forever — providing a complete record of citizens’ lives for the government to access at will.

Should you care?   Yes.  In New York City, for instance, police officers have reportedly driven unmarked vehicles equipped with license plate readers around local mosques in order to record each attendee.

What if entire motorcycle clubs/communities are targeted based on their associational makeup?

It’s a core principle that in the United States of America, the government does not invade its citizens’ privacy and store information about their innocent activities just in case they do something wrong.

Photo courtesy of firstcoastnews.com

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Slowly but surely, things are getting better—or so we’d like to believe.

The unfortunate truth is the recession has sent an alarming number of families into financial distress for the first time. Unemployment remains high. Home foreclosures continue. The Portland Police Bureau respond to what seems like an ever increasing number of calls involving people struggling with mental health crisis, including suicides.  Visits to food banks have reached record levels. The increasing demand for services—and diminishing state and local resources—is straining the community safety net for people in need.

I don’t have answers to the economic issues.  But undeniably, the sensation of air molecules colliding with one’s face is refreshingly life-affirming.  To be in the wind: Free. Untethered. Sans obligations, financial, agendas, appointments, offices, annoyances.  Life’s problems just don’t seem as bad…

In part, it’s the reason for the tag line of this blog Whatever it is… it’s better in the wind” which I created back in July 2007.  The thinking was all a person needs is a few bucks for a used bike, $20 bucks for some fuel, a couple t-shirts, some free time, and a couple like-minded friends to enjoy the sensation. If you can’t scrape that together, then at least roll down the windows on the SUV, and enjoy a few moments of well-deserved Wind.

And speaking of wind in the face… a couple years ago I blogged (HERE) about Scott G. Toepfer — an emerging documentary photographer with a love of motorcycles and adventure.  His posse set out across the Western U.S., to experience the spaces between here and there, and to see what becomes of them on the road.

It turns out that Mr. Toepfer finally aggregated the content he captured from their rides over the last two years and release the short film (HERE – 17 min) which tells the story of their adventures.  It’s certainly worth a watch and may even be an inspiration for getting out in the wind!

Photo courtesy of Scott Toepfer.

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