Reporting Jim DeFede
MIAMI (CBSMiami) — It’s possible information about you, where you’re going and places you stop, is being recorded and saved in secret national databases.
Investigators say it’s a valuable tool for finding criminals and even people who don’t pay their parking tickets or car payments. Privacy advocates warn to proceed with caution.
By simply passing vehicles on a highway, a city street or parking lot, car mounted cameras can record up to 3,500 license plates a minute. A computer then saves and tags the plate picture with the date, time and location it was taken.
Until Mike Katz-Lacabe requested pictures from his local police department, he had no idea officers had stored 100 ‘plate photos’ of his family’s cars around town over a two-year period.
“Most people don’t know that this is happening,” said Katz-Lacabe.
He was surprised to see himself in a photo and another with his children in his driveway.
“I was shocking. It’s very powerful information,” he said.
Who’s out there scanning license plates?
Private companies, car repossession agents and according to a report, more than 37 percent of large law enforcement agencies across the country. Where does the information go? Some police departments keep their own plate databases. Some law enforcement agencies and repo firms send it to private companies, like MV TRAC. MV TRAC is a leading license plate photo database. It is legal to shoot and store video shot in public.
“It’s perfectly legal. It’s not infringing on anyone’s rights,” said MV TRAC’s Scott Jackson.
Critics are now asking how long are photos being kept, how are they being used and who has access to them across the country?
“There are no rules that govern it. There’s no overall governing structure. There’s no law that would impact how the different municipalities and states would implement this, and therefore the potential for misuse or unintended use is extraordinarily high,” said attorney Mary Ellen Callahan, former Chief Privacy Officer Dept. of Homeland Security.
An International Association of Police Chiefs survey shows some agencies keep the plate information indefinitely, while others delete it after a few months.
The association says it’s critical to crime fighting and police keep the info secure.
“We don’t know of a single instance where automated license plate recognition data has been misused or abused,” said David Roberts, International Association of Police Chiefs.
MV TRAC says it keeps its plate data indefinitely and only police and car repo companies who have passed in-depth background check can access its database. Its system ‘alerts’ a user when a ‘hot listed’ or ‘wanted’ plate is discovered.
“There’s no real concern for privacy unless you’ve done something wrong. if you’ve done something wrong, you’re a murderer, if you are a child abductor, if you’ve committed a crime or if you haven’t made your car payments in a long time, then that’s a permissible purpose as well,” explained MV TRAC’s Scott Jackson.
Mike Katz-Lacabe said even though he’s no criminal, he’s still not comfortable having his daily drives caught on camera and stored.
“That sort of thing frightens me.”
MV TRAC says it does not sell the plate data to members of the public or marketing firms.
Don’t forget, whenever you go through a toll plaza your license plate is also photographed and stored and available to police.