If you drive in the metro area, there's a good chance you are.
It's yet another case of technology getting ahead of rules to govern it: This month the Star Tribune's Eric Roper reported that the Minneapolis Police Department could track the whereabouts of his own car and vehicles driven by Mayor R.T. Rybak. Over the course of one year, Roper's car was videotaped and recorded in seven spots; the mayor's was spotted 41 times.
Such specific surveillance is possible because Minneapolis police and many other law enforcement agencies now have automatic license plate readers (LPRs) mounted on city vehicles and some stationary cameras around town.
That's too much "Big Brother'' for us. Law enforcement can use the technology and data to locate a person or follow his travel patterns. And because the information is public, anybody off the street can do the same thing. Data miners or marketers could request the information for sales or collections purposes. Maps of potential victim's travel patterns would be a gold mine for stalkers.
The huge potential for abuse is why the state should step in to adopt reasonable rules about storage time, access, how the information may be used and whether any of it should be deemed private. The availability of this data raises multiple questions about privacy and how government collects data on citizens.
Should law enforcement be able to track anyone -- even if they are not suspected of a crime? Should the data only be available to local police and the individual vehicle owner? How and under what circumstances can the information be shared?
LPRs are small cameras mounted on vehicles or on stationary objects, such as traffic-light poles or bridges. They take video recordings of every license plate in their paths; each car and plate is time-, date- and GPS-stamped, then stored and sent to a database. If a license plate that police are seeking is spotted, an alert is sent to patrol officers.
Minneapolis police keep the photo records for 21 days, but they keep the written information for a year. The department has two stationary cameras and eight mobile units on police and traffic vehicles. They've recorded photos and location information on nearly 5 million plates in 2012.
Because there are no rules about the information, police departments have set their own. St. Paul, which also has 10 cameras, deletes the data in 14 days, while the State Patrol erases it in 48 hours.
To be sure, there are legitimate law enforcement uses for the technology. Often provided to agencies through state and federal grants, the cameras are valuable tools to help cops locate the bad guys in real time and track their movements. But there are also obvious downsides.
Concerns about how this information is accessed and used prompted America Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) affiliates in 36 states, including Minnesota, to request information about how the LPR-generated information is used.
The state chapter is seeking records from Minneapolis police, several other state law enforcement agencies and the state departments of Public Safety and Commerce. The national ACLU has also filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Transportation to learn how the federal government funds LPR expansion and uses the technology itself.
In Minnesota, Rep. Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine, has said he will introduce legislation that would make the license scan information private.
That should kickstart a needed discussion at the Legislature. In the meantime, Big Brother will be watching you.
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