Smile - Police Video Cams Are Taking Your Picture!

April 21st, 2015

For those of us who drive the streets of Atlanta, there’s a great chance that the Atlanta PD has taken your picture!  They have either snapped you with the auto video cameras, or scanned the details of your travels.

 State police and local officers in Atlanta, Sandy Springs, Fulton and Gwinnett counties are now all carrying video cams, and automatic license plate scanners, which include very sophisticated cameras that can now capture a variety of information about motorists.  They use the information provided to hunt for stolen vehicles, missing children, fugitives, suspected terrorists, as well as provide evidence from traffic accidents, and even protection for the officers themselves, as they stop vehicles for routine checks.  The tag readers themselves can capture images of any vehicles they are pointed at, regardless of whether  the drivers are breaking the law or not.  Some police agencies are holding onto millions of these images - including the dates and times when and where they were photographed, and their geographic coordinates for years, the AJC has reported in their many reports.  But Privacy Watchdogs are very worried.  They point out that such data could create detailed maps of motorists' private lives.  And these images are publicly accessible under Georgia's Open Records Act.

Georgia’s lawmakers, as well as those in 9 other states are now considering legislation to regulate these devices.  Georgia House Bill 93, sponsored by Deputy Majority Whip John Pezold, would require police to delete the images captured by the devices after 30 days.  Pezold also wants to require police agencies to obtain search warrants before they can get the data from other agencies.  "You have government agencies collecting records on people who may have never been charged with a crime, along with those with criminal backgrounds, all with their location data," said Pezold, a Republican from Columbus, Ga.  "I have serious reservations about that.  And I think most reasonable people in our state would also."  The Police Department says the scanners collect important evidence that they should be allowed to hang onto for more than 30 days.  Such evidence, they have said, could implicate people in crimes or even clear them, Cpl Jake Smith, a Gwinnett police spokesman, has said.  "The deletion of images after only 30 days may eliminate potential evidence of criminal activity before a police investigation has been completed," Smith said. 

These cameras are now mounted on police cars, road signs and on traffic lights.   The devices can capture more than 1,000 license plate images a minute.  Those images are compared against law enforcement data bases of vehicles suspected to be involved in crimes.  If there is a match, the system alerts police.  But private companies are also using them to repossess vehicles.  Soon anyone will be able to purchase the same kind of cameras and scanners, just and guns are now easily purchased by almost anyone at all.  The average motorists' privacy is quickly becoming a major concern.

In Gwinnett County, the police department has the systems attached to eight of their vehicles.  The images they capture are stored on a server in the Gwinnett Sheriff's Office, which has six of its own cameras.  In all, the Sheriff's s office has over 11 million images of vehicles and license plates stored.  These records include the nearest addresses also, where the cars were photographed and the dates and times they were spotted.  A spokeswoman for the Gwinnett Sheriff's Office, Deputy Shannon Volkodav, said its storage system is unable to report just how many of these images are considered to be part of investigations.  Her office's four-page policy for the devices says its images may be retained for up to three years, even though the county Police Department keeps its images for up to five years.  The policy states that the photos are accessible by only the office's information technology staff and those authorized by the sheriff.  "We share license plate reader information only with other law enforcement agencies," Volkodav, said in an email. "The information is never shared with anyone outside law enforcement."

In contrast, the Georgia Department of Public Safety says it has no written policy for the use of its 45 license plate readers, the retention of images captured by them, and how those images may or may not be shared with others!  The state agency has more than 500,000 images stored that are not a part of investigations.  It has about 6,000 more on file that are.  A spokesman for the agency said its images, which are deleted after about 30 days, are shared only with other law enforcement departments.  State Police Departments are using these devices in a variety of ways, including enforcing immigration laws, detecting suspended or revoked vehicle registrations, and spotting people violating the state's Peach Pass toll system.

At present, 10 other  states including Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Utah and Vermont, now have laws regulating the auto tag readers and limiting how long these images are kept, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.   Arkansas law, for example, says their images may not be kept for more than 150 days.  But the limit is 60 days for California highway patrolmen.  Both states' laws include some investigations.  Related legislation is now pending in 10 states this year.  Some Atlanta police agencies could not say how many images they have stored because private contractors handle that responsibility for them.  The Atlanta Police Department has 11 automatic tag readers.  DeKalb County police has none, but the county is studying whether or not to purchase some of them.  Last month, Cobb County Commissioners approved spending of close to $140, 000 for seven of them.   Cpl Kay Lester, a Fulton County police spokeswoman, said the single license plate reader that her department uses has proved to be "enormously successful, and we have recovered numerous stolen vehicles, recovered vehicles taken in carjacking, apprehended multiple fugitives, and discovered an assortment of traffic violations by using it."

Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union, has said that it only makes common sense to restrict how long police agencies may keep these images on file.  "As this technology gets cheaper and more widespread, we may be looking at a future where there are three of these on every block," said Stanley, who writes about technology related privacy issues in the automobile industry.  "And the data trails that they create won't be much different from what the government would get if they put a GPS on your car.  That's a lot of power for the government to have."

Well, it looks like one thing is for certain, Big Brother is really watching!