License-Plate Reader Allows Anyone to Track Your Vehicle

The unintended consequence of simple parking enforcement technology sparks privacy concerns

Fort Collins, Colorado’s more efficient parking enforcement license-plate reader has been collecting and storing far more data than ever intended. The AutoVu system automatically scans, photographs and recognizes every license plate it sees. The system then tags the photo with the current GPS coordinates and stores the data in a database that is supposed to be secure. The AutoVu system was designed to more efficiently write parking tickets and provide evidence when someone contests the ticket. The photos are supposed to be deleted after six months.

However, the system has been retaining data for two years, city officials discovered. Even more unnerving, is under Colorado sunshine laws, the supposedly secure data is available to anyone upon request. Anyone can get a copy of the database and search for the location that anyone else’s vehicle has been in the past two years in the city of Fort Collins. A reporter’s Jeep was tracked to 12 locations over the two-year period.

The privacy issues are obvious but someone with a criminal mind may use such information for any number of devious intents. Randy Hensley, Fort Collins Parking Services Manager, says, “Now that we know there’s an issue, we’re taking active steps to purge that data. If we can’t justify the use of this, and how we use it, we shouldn’t have it.”

Only parking enforcers in Fort Collins use the license-plate reader but in many cities police officers use the same technology to check for stolen cars. Obtaining similar public records, the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper published a map displaying the location of Mayor R.T. Rybak’s car 41 times in the preceding year. Minneapolis uses the license plate reader.

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