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License-plate readers allow cops to track every driver in Boulder -- and beyond?

Categories: News

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Big photos and more below.
We've all seen cameras on traffic-light poles, and many of us have noticed police vehicles mounted with similar devices. But did you know so-called license-plate readers can be utilized to track the whereabouts of any driver, whether he or she has violated any laws?

This prospect alarms the Boulder chapter of the ACLU, whose chairman, Judd Golden, has formerly asked Boulder City Council to limit the use of data from such readers, which have been deployed in Boulder for two years. He explains why below.

Golden, who spoke at this week's council meeting, notes that Boulder's ordinance on license-plate readers, passed a few years ago, "precludes private dissemination" of data obtained by the gizmos. Likewise, law-enforcement policy calls for info on "non-violators" to be discarded after ninety days -- although he stresses this edict can be altered at any point. "So," he says, "we're asking council to limit retention in such a way that this could not be reasonably used for all the possible, abusive purposes that have either happened in other places or that put people at risk of having their movements tracked by the police."

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An image from the "You Are Being Tracked" slide show.
The national ACLU has made license-plate readers a focus of late. In July, the organization released a report entitled "You Are Being Tracked;" we've included it below, along with an interactive slide show graphically depicting some of its highlights. And Golden stresses that the concept of tracking individuals isn't simply theoretical. He points to a 2012 report by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in which the paper used open-records request to learn oodles of places where city mayor R.T. Rybak drove and parked thanks to data from license-plate readers.

"They were able to basically reconstruct the mayor's life and put it in the newspaper," Golden points out. "And afterward, he said, 'This technology has gone too far. We need to stop this'" -- by calling for such material to be reclassified as non-public.

In Golden's view, Rybak was right to be alarmed. "These license-plate scanners can capture a photo of not just the license plate. Some of them are now capturing a significant portion of the vehicles, and if it's a front view, you can see the people. They go up and down the street, and they're limited only by how long they're on the road. So what you have is a record of where a vehicle was at during a certain time.

"Now, let's say you've retained your records over a period of six months. You can put in a license plate and basically track wherever that person was. Like, 'Look, he went to the adult book store.' Or 'he's gone to a medical office several times -- hmmmm. Wonder what he's doing there?' There are all these possible ways they can data mine and use that data to create a record of where people go and what they do."

Continue for more about license-plate readers, including photos, a slide show and more.



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4 comments
Schittphaiç Magü
Schittphaiç Magü

Don't feel too left out, buddy. In due time, if and when enough cyclists are clogging public streets, expect municipal, county, and perhaps state authorities to mandate tags for your non-motorized 2-wheelers.

Denver B-cycle
Denver B-cycle

One more reason to ride your bike! #bypassbigbrother

Michael Beckerman
Michael Beckerman

A very easy problem to solve. Just cake some mud over your front bumper and license plate. No one can ticket you for having a dirty car.

michael.roberts
michael.roberts moderator editortopcommenter

@Michael Beckerman A creative solution, Michael. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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