Experimental License-plate Scanners Track Cars on Highways

Experimental License-plate Scanners Track Cars on Highways

Experimental License-plate Scanners Track Cars on Highways

An experimental
license-plate scanning system allowed state
troopers to capture 23 criminal suspects and recover 24 stolen
vehicles during a recent four-month test on the Ohio Turnpike,
the Ohio Highway Patrol announced yesterday. But whether the
system has a future on the turnpike and other state highways
remains to be decided, a patrol spokesman said. For the test,
Automatic Plate Recognition scanners were mounted at the
turnpike's entrance plazas near the Pennsylvania and Indiana
borders and in two state patrol cruisers. The devices scanned all
license plates and compared the results with lists of vehicles
"wanted" because they were reported stolen, the license
plates were reported stolen, or authorities had arrest warrants
for the registered owners.

Positive matches were followed up by troopers confirming the
plate on the vehicle before pulling it over. According to the
announcement, the 24 stolen vehicles were worth a combined
$221,000 and represented a 50 percent increase in stolen-vehicle
recoveries compared with the same dates in 2003. The patrol's
announcement noted that the recovered vehicles included two
stolen truck trailers, which it said indicated a potential
homeland-security benefit from the system.

Lt. Rick Zwayer, a spokesman at highway patrol headquarters in
Columbus, said he was not aware of those particular trailers
containing any sensitive cargo. Lieutenant Zwayer could not
provide information about the charges brought against those who
were arrested, nor explain why the number of arrests was lower
than the stolen car recovery count. The scanning system was paid
for with a $61,000 federal grant.

At its start, the experiment was denounced by civil liberties
interests, on the grounds that it could be used to compile
surveillance records of all vehicular activity. Jeff Gamso, the
Ohio legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said
he is "still skeptical" that the technology's
application won't eventually be extended beyond identifying
stolen cars or wanted drivers. "Good for them for having
recovered stolen cars," Mr. Gamso said. "But I remain
concerned about the incremental invasion of people's
privacy."

While the highway patrol promises that any data about vehicles
that doesn't generate a "wanted" match is not
retained, Mr. Gamso said, "What I'd like to know is that
they're continuing to 'lose' that information three
years from now." While the test results indicate that the
system has potential for effective use, Lieutenant Zwayer said,
further assessment is necessary to determine if the benefit is
appropriate to the cost of expanding it.

Col. Paul McClellan, superintendent of the highway patrol,
will meet with technical experts and the Ohio Controlling Board
to discuss the results and evaluate the system's potential
for long-term - and potentially wider - use, the lieutenant said.
Mr. Gamso said the ACLU might press for consideration of the
civil liberties angle when such a decision is made.

taken from the Toledo Blade, January 5, 2005
by David Patch, used with permission