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Police Have the Scary Capability to Track Wherever You're Driving

License-plate reading technology's jaw dropping capabilities are already deployed across America.

A building at 55 Broadway, in lower Manhattan, is home to the Lower Manhattan Security Coordination Center, the locus of the New York Police Department's massive, intelligence-gathering activities. According to a 2011 estimate, the facility integrates not only some 1,000 NYPD cameras located in lower Manhattan and some 700 cameras in midtown, but an additional 2,000 private surveillance cameras owned by Wall Street firms. These cameras are principally focused on capturing license plate data. The center cost an estimated $150 million to set up.

While Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly endlessly tout the value of Manhattan’s "ring of steel," modeled after the security infrastructure of London’s financial district, they reveal little as to its role tracking car traffic in the city.  Both back the department’s Domain Awareness System (DAS), which can track individuals or incidents (e.g., a suspicious package) through live video feeds from some 3,000 CCTV cameras, 2,600 radiation substances detectors, check license plate numbers, pull up crime reports and cross-check all information agains t criminal and terrorist databases.

The NYPD is but one of a growing number of local and state police agencies throughout the country engaged in the non-stop tracking of car license plates. Most troubling, the data captured through license plate reader (LPR) and automatic license plate recognition (ALPR) programs are being integrated with other personal data to provide the security state with ever more detailed profiles of ordinary Americans.

Motorola is one of the major tech companies providing police agencies with ALPR products. The Moto system is used to track the “vehicle of interest” by a police officer in a squad car. The captured data is integrated into the back-office system software, or BOSS. The system incorporates diverse data sets, including full or partial plate numbers, GPS coordinates, time and day, photographs and more. Equally critical, the system allows data to be shared among multiple locations and agencies.

Federal Signal‘s PIPS Technology of Knoxville, TN, is probably the largest supplier of ALPR technology. Other suppliers include ELSAG North America of Brewster, NY; MVTRAC of Palatine, IL; and San Francisco-based PoliceOne.

The federal government is the principal funder of car tracking. According to the FBI, its Criminal Justice Information Services Division (CJIS) approved LPR in June 2004. As of September 2011, “46 states, the District of Columbia, 33 local agencies, and one federal agency have formal agreements with the FBI to receive the NCIC information for the purpose of using LPRs.”

The LPR program is part of the larger National Crime Information Center (NCIC) that “enables law enforcement and the intelligence communities to identify terrorists, apprehend fugitives, locate missing persons, identify unidentified persons, recover stolen property, and protect innocent persons.”

As recently reported by the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has distributed more than $50 million in federal grants to law-enforcement agencies over the past five years. It noted “a 2010 study estimates that more than a third of large U.S. police agencies use automated plate-reading systems.”

State police agencies and local law enforcement authorities throughout the country are actively engaged in license plate tracking. In Washington, DC, some 250 tracking cameras are in operation. According to the ACLU of Washington, 18 police departments in the state have deployed them. In Maryland, some 320 LPRs are in use and scanned license plate data, including even non-criminal information, is collected by the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center. (The Center, while its website has e-mail and phone contacts, provides no address.)

In New York, the state police reported in 2010 that its auto-theft unit had tracked over 57,000 licenses. The outcome: it located a whopping three stolen cars and 200 revoked or suspended license registrations.

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