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Private Company Has Your License Plate Number and It Stores Data About Where Your Car Has Been

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Technology that scans license plates and puts them into a database is transforming the law enforcement—and worrying civil liberties advocates.

When many police are on beat patrols, they're not only looking for crimes in progress. They're also manually entering license plate numbers in the hopes that something might pop up, like a warrant for an arrest or a match for a stolen car. But new technology automatically scans license plate data, records cars' locations at a certain date and time and stores that data. There are limits to what police can do with that information, but private companies don't have these same restrictions, according to California Watch.

One company Vigilant Video, headquartered in Livermore, California, is taking that loophole and really running with it, California Watch reports. Its customers include police departments, as well as private security companies and auto repo companies tracking down delinquent car owners. It has amassed data from its cameras to create a massive database, which it allows law enforcement departments to use for free.

Police love the system, because they say it's another tool that effectively helps them fight crime. Capt. Johnny Jennings of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina told California Watch that his department has been able to reduce the number of stolen vehicles.

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But some worry that all this data could end up tracking the movements of citizens in a disturbing way that violates citizens' civil liberties.

Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, spoke with California Watch:

"Any time you're talking about movements in public which you can archive, or any data you can archive over time, then it’s like a way-back machine. 'Gee, we’ll be able to reconstruct the movements of your car or your cell phone,' […] It's incredibly revealing, so I think it's pretty clear this is a big issue."