License plate readers are everywhere in Texas, including Houston. Think of red-light cameras, or the cameras on toll-roads. Police squad cars are equipped with the special cameras that can scan thousands of license plates in the blink of an eye and store all that information in vast data bases far from public scrutiny. And that has become the issue.
In light of the revelations about the NSA collecting data from millions of American’s email accounts and internet site selections, some are asking if the same violations of privacy and the lack of accountability can be applied to license plate reader cameras.
The cameras were created by the British in the late ‘70’s to protect London from IRA bombs. In the 1980’s the technology was found effective in identifying stolen cars, and their popularity has spread.
They have become invaluable to law enforcement and are used by the Houston Police Department and other surrounding law enforcement. Pamela Greenwood from District 7 in Harris County explains, “We have a patrol car that is equipped with a license plate reader. When we have a deputy driving that vehicle it can scan license plates and determine if a car has been stolen or reported stolen.”
Private re-possession companies purchase and use the scanners for similar purposes. Their usefulness to law enforcement is unchallenged, but the question of what is done with all the information they produce and store has raised issues of privacy violations.
“Say you’ve got a camera on I-35 or I-10 -- in the course of one day you can read the license plate information on thousands and thousands and thousands of cars,” Forrest Wilder of the Texas Observer told KTRH. “The concern comes into play when they’re storing massive amounts of data on computers, and we can imagine the kind of abuses of surveillance similar to the programs in the news used by the NSA.”
Texas used $1.2 million dollars of stimulus money to provide 14 police agencies in Texas with license plate readers.