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Naughty Or Nice … Either Way, You’re Being Tracked

This article is more than 7 years old.

If you’re one of this season’s millions of holiday travelers — or if you drive anywhere — consider this: police are tracking your every move.

How so? The State Police and more than 50 Massachusetts cities and towns now deploy license plate scanners as they cruise through your neighborhood, snapping photographs of each and every license plate. They capture thousands of scans per minute as they glide past driveways, offices, schools, and parking lots.

Indiscriminately tracking both the naughty and the nice, these gadgets store your every move in vast police databases that capture where and when your car is located, day and night.

The police claim they need these data troves to identify stolen cars, outstanding warrants and to nab any of you whose registration is overdue or have unpaid parking tickets.

Santa isn’t the only one watching you.

Only now, a recent Boston Globe investigation revealed, while the scanners may be a convenient way to hassle people who have overdue parking tickets, the police aren’t even bothering to nab the car thieves. That’s right: a review of some 68,000 scans turned over to the Globe revealed that the  police routinely don’t bother to respond to live 'hits' alerting them to the location of stolen cars.

Let’s end this season of digital dragnets and ring in the New Year by passing the 'License Plate Privacy Act' to protect both public safety and privacy.

Which raises the question: What are the police doing with these vast digital dossiers on millions of innocent motorists?

One thing they can do is build a disturbingly accurate picture of where you go and when: a medical clinic or doctor’s office, the mall, the neighborhood bar, a pharmacy, a secret tryst, a friend’s house — even when there is no suspicion that you have broken the law or otherwise deserve coal in your stocking.

They know where you’ve been sleeping, they know where you are when you’re awake. And based on that information, it’s pretty easy to figure out whether you’ve been bad or good.

Worse, this information doesn’t just stay with police. It gets fed into regional, state and corporate databanks, where it can be retrieved by others with virtually no legal oversight or accountability over who can access it and what they do with it.

Think it can’t happen? Let’s recall the recently reported security breach at Target, in which information about millions of shoppers reportedly was exposed and hacked by greedy elves.

In comparison, just one commercial database of license plate information already has 1.5 billion such records in it. What if this information, too, falls into the wrong hands? You’d better watch out…

Here’s some good news. Following the Globe revelations, the Boston Police Department announced that it has temporarily suspended its license plate scanning program. That’s a good start, so far as it goes. But, even so, no license plate reader program in Massachusetts is subject to independent oversight or regulation.

Let’s end this season of digital dragnets and ring in the New Year by passing the “License Plate Privacy Act” to protect both public safety and privacy. The Act, sponsored by Sen. Cynthia S. Creem and Rep. Jonathan Hecht, spells out proper uses for license plate reader technology and protects motorists’ privacy by limiting the kind of information that the government can retain and the time it can hold it.

Technology such as license plate readers may have good and appropriate uses in our society. But new police toys require updated laws to ensure that they are used safely and only as directed.

Ordinary Massachusetts motorists have a right to spend their holidays — and every day of the year — without being tracked by men in red suits or officers in blue uniforms.


This program aired on December 26, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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