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Continued: Cops move to protect license plate data

  • Article by: ERIC ROPER , Star Tribune
  • Last update: November 4, 2012 - 4:04 PM

Minneapolis police are making changes to protect the sensitive information in their massive vehicle tracking database from possible misuse by stalkers and others.

The city's database is filled with location information collected by small license plate readers mounted on squad cars and bridges, logging data on every plate they spot in the hope of finding wanted vehicles.

Since the data is classified as public, anyone can request location information on someone else's car -- provided they know the license plate number -- and find out where it has been seen on a handful of days.

The city used to keep that data for a year, but now discards it after 90 days. That's still longer than St. Paul, which keeps data for two weeks, and the State Patrol, which discards it after 48 hours.

Minneapolis police are working to create an audit system to track access, as well as department-wide policies governing when the information can be searched and by whom. Interim Chief Janeé Harteau is also seeking a state law change to keep the information private, which would allow vehicle owners to see only their own data. The Legislature is likely to take up the issue next year.

Since the Star Tribune first reported in August on the availability of the license plate data, the Minneapolis Police Department has received nearly 80 such requests, including one from a man who said he has hopes to "create value" from the entire database.

Arthur D'Antonio III, who works in Web startups in Southern California, is one of at least two people who have requested the entire database from the department. He declined to get into specifics about why he wants the information.

"What we're looking to do is create value," D'Antonio said. "So I don't want to put people in harm's way by any means. But the data is out there. And so there are a lot of valuable uses from demographic information through to basic analysis or even actionable repo men use cases. So wherever the value is, that's where we'll go."

Variety of requests

Among the 80 requests for the data, a significant number came from a man in the repossession business who has sought the data to find cars and recruit clients. Many others come from people inquiring about their own vehicles. A bounty hunter requested data last month hoping to find a fugitive child predator.

Deputy Chief Robert Allen, who is working to create the department-wide policies, told the City Council on Thursday that he has "grave concerns" about the data remaining public -- a classification that would have to be changed by the state.

"If, for example, a stalker wants to see where their prey has been, they can do a public records search and we are required to provide them with information about where that vehicle has been seen by our system," Allen said.

Allen offered the broadest outline yet of how the department uses the technology. He said one of its primary "live reading" uses is for parking enforcement, to find those with multiple unpaid tickets. Police also use it to identify wanted and stolen vehicles.

Perhaps more important, police can perform "historical database searches" to establish if a vehicle was in the vicinity of a crime scene. If a witness remembers only a partial plate, they can run a "wild card" search to find plates with certain numbers. And when police respond to a major crime, they sometimes use the readers to record a list of all vehicles in the area to "develop suspect information."

"In homicides, the point is that we may not know about the vehicle until a significant time after the crime has occurred," Allen said.

He noted that the database doesn't store personally identifiable information beyond the plate number. Allen emphasized that the cameras allow them to track vehicles, not individuals. Allen said fewer than a dozen people have logins to the database, all of whom have received additional training in privacy issues.

Open government advocate Rich Neumeister thinks law enforcement should discard the data immediately if there isn't a "hit," and he's wary that privatizing it will only eliminate a key layer of police accountability. "I am not in a rush to support making this all non-public or private ... until law enforcement can come up with a very strong policy-based reason why to keep information on innocent, law-abiding people," Neumeister said.

Repo man

The most frequent requestor of the city's data is Alex Peterson, a repossession agent who spent a recent Saturday in Minneapolis looking for cars as he drove his pickup truck. He was guided through the streets by his GPS and a stack of printouts. Each contained license plate reads he had requested from the Police Department.

Peterson often plays detective when he's hunting down a car, knocking on doors, perusing Facebook and winding through Wal-mart parking lots -- a common place for people to stash cars wanted for repossession.

He's in the process of obtaining a new private license plate reader for his car, but he's also added the police database to his toolbox. The city readers, he said, get more hits.

"It's made it a whole lot easier for anything that's in Minneapolis," said Peterson, whose company is called 11th Hour Recovery. "Because even if it's not telling me exactly where it is, it tells if that car's still on the road."

Peterson said he sees the need to reclassify the data to ensure that "not just anyone can pull it. I'd love to be in that list of people who'd be able to pull it, but I really think it is something that needs to be regulated."

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732

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