Are Philly Police Tracking Your Car’s Whereabouts?

License plate readers raise privacy concerns, but police say tools help fight crime.
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Philly Police are among several local agencies using technology to photograph and record millions of license plate numbers — and, over time, to track the movements of a vehicle and its driver.

Civil libertarians say the technology raises privacy concerns, NBC 10 reports, but police say it helps them solve crimes.

Since the beginning of 2014, Philly Police say they’ve recorded nearly 30 million license plates. That information led to the recovery of 521 stolen cars and the arrest of six suspects. Philly Police retain the license plate info for a year, then purge, saving only if the plate is associated with criinal activity.

“This is an extraordinary amount of government surveillance for what appears to be a very small amount of criminal activity,” Pennsylvania ACLU legal director Mary Catherine Roper told NBC 10. “There are things in your life that are simply not public knowledge.”

The information was available, in part, because the watchdog website Philly Declaration has been fighting for disclosure from the program.

“Last year, The Declaration began an investigation of PPD’s use of license plate readers,” the site reported in April. “We learned that the police department has an ALPR fleet consisting of at least ten units that comb city traffic, snapping thousands of plate images per minute, and storing them on a server located inside the Philadelphia Police Department’s fusion center, known as the Delaware Valley Intelligence Center.”

“ALPR technology enables the department to collect and store, without a warrant, the daily activities of average Philadelphians, the vast majority of whom are not under investigation,” the site offered in a separate report. “Information on the travel habits of people not under investigation can be queried by law enforcement personnel versed in the equipment’s use, allowing authorities to draw up a mosaic of innocent people’s daily lives.”

But investigators say the tool helps make patrol officers more efficient.

“Police say the automatic license plate readers allow officers to focus on other police work while on patrol,” NBC10 reported. “The license plate reader watches for stolen cars or tags associated with crimes while an officer keeps his eyes on the road and beat.”