May 17--A growing number of cameras -- hundreds around Los Angeles, thousands nationwide -- are engaged in a simple pursuit: Taking pictures of license plates.
The digital photos, automatically snapped by cameras mounted on cars and street poles and then tagged with time and location, are transmitted to massive databases running on remote computer servers. Cops can then search those databases to track the past whereabouts of drivers.
Law enforcement officials say the data collection is invaluable for tracking down stolen cars and catching fugitives.
But such databases are also being built by private firms, which can sell access to anyone willing to pay, such as lenders, repo workers and private investigators. That is raising worries among privacy advocates and lawmakers, who say the fast-growing industry is not only ripe for conflicts of interest but downright invasive.
"What they're doing crosses the line," said state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), who is pushing legislation to rein in the industry.
Hill agrees that license plate data can aid law enforcement, but believes that the industry needs restrictions. He said he's worried that partnerships between police and for-profit data firms could result in cops doing the bidding of insurance companies and repo firms.
His legislation would ban public agencies from sharing data they collect with private entities, prohibit license plate scanners from coming onto private property without consent and make it easier for privacy lawsuits to be filed against data collectors.
To demonstrate the power of the databases, Hill hired a private detective to track his wife. Rather than tailing her, the detective paid for access to license data that showed Hill's wife parked at a Sacramento gym more than 100 miles from their home.
In another case, a San Leandro, Calif., man filed a public records request and learned his cars were photographed more than 100 times, including one image that showed his daughters in the driveway.
Hill's legislation faces an uphill battle. A similar bill in California died amid intense lobbying by law enforcement officials and the industry in 2012. In Utah, lawmakers backed off legislation restricting commercial collection of license plate data after being sued by one of the leading license-data collectors, Vigilant Solutions in Livermore, Calif. Like other data firms, Vigilant claims free-speech rights to take photographs in public.
The industry is growing rapidly. A 2010 study showed a third of large police departments using plate readers. In 2012, the most recent data available, a survey found more than 70% of the nation's police departments had the scanners.
Vigilant in particular has seen its appeal among law enforcement officers grow because it can offer police departments access to a trove of more than 2 billion scans, maintained by an affiliated company, Digital Recognition Network. That database is fed by cameras attached to vehicles driven by repossession agents roving the nation's roadways.
The two companies have 160 employees. Vigilant reports having more than 3,500 law enforcement clients that either use the company's cameras or access its data. Digital Recognition Network has more than 250 customers. A Vigilant representative estimated that the entire industry brings in as much as $500 million a year.
Along with Vigilant, some of the other companies providing license plate scanning technology include Motorola, PlateSmart and PIPS Technology. Their law enforcement clients generally point to high-profile cases the technology helped solve.
Last month, police used license plate data to end a monthlong hunt for a man suspected of randomly firing at cars on Kansas City, Mo., highways. A woman who thought she was being followed reported the plate number. Cops plugged that into their system and quickly had the car's past locations. Within a day, a license plate scanner passed the car and got a hit.