For more than two years, the police in San Leandro, Calif., photographed Mike Katz-Lacabe's Toyota Tercel almost weekly.
They have shots of it cruising along Estudillo Avenue near the library, parked at his friend's house and near a coffee shop he likes.
In one case, they snapped a photo of him and his two daughters getting out of a car in his driveway.
Mr. Katz-Lacabe isn't charged with, or suspected of, any crime. Local police are tracking his vehicle automatically, using cameras mounted on a patrol car that record every nearby vehicle—license plate, time and location.
"Why are they keeping all this data?" says Mr. Katz-Lacabe, who obtained the photos of his car through a public-records request. "I've done nothing wrong."
Until recently it was far too expensive for police to track the locations of innocent people such as Mr. Katz-Lacabe.
But as surveillance technologies decline in cost and grow in sophistication, police are rapidly adopting them. Private companies are joining, too.
At least two start-up companies, both founded by "repo men"—specialists in repossessing cars or property from deadbeats—are currently deploying camera-equipped cars nationwide to photograph people's license plates, hoping to profit from the data they collect.
The rise of license-plate tracking is a case study in how storing and studying people's everyday activities, even the seemingly mundane, has become the default rather than the exception.
Cellphone-location data, online searches, credit-card purchases, social-network comments and more are gathered, mixed-and-matched, and stored in vast databases.
Data about a typical American is collected in more than 20 different ways during everyday activities, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis.
Fifteen years ago, more than half of these types of surveillance tools were unavailable or not in widespread use, says Col. Lisa Shay, a professor of electrical engineering at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who studies tracking.
"What would the 1950s Soviet Union have done with the technology we have now?" says Col. Shay. "We don't have a police state in this country, but we have the technology."
Law-enforcement agents say they are using this information only to catch bad guys.
During the past five years, the U.S. Department of Homeland Secur ity has distributed more than $50 million in federal grants to law-enforcement agencies—ranging from sprawling Los Angeles to little Crisp County, Ga., pop. 23,000—for automated license-plate recognition systems.
A 2010 study estimates that more than a third of large U.S. police agencies use automated plate-reading systems.
The information captured is considerable. Through a public-records act request, The Journal obtained two years' worth of plate information from the Riverside County Sheriff's Department in California. From Sept. 10, 2010, to Aug. 27, 2012, the sheriff's cameras captured about 6 million license-plate scans.
The sheriff's 49 camera-equipped vehicles scanned about 2 million unique plates. The average plate in the database was scanned three times over the two-year period.
Less than 1% of plates were tracked extensively—hundreds of times, and occasionally thousands.
First Amendment Issues
A report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police warns that "recording driving habits" could raise First Amendment concerns.
It noted that plate readers might record "vehicles parked at addiction-counseling meetings, doctors' offices, health clinics, or even staging areas for political protests."
The association urged members to consider establishing "more specific criteria for granting access" to the information and to designate it only for "official use."
License-plate databases contain revealing information about people's locations. Police can generally obtain it without a judge's approval.
By comparison, prosecutors typically get a court order to install GPS trackers on people's cars or to track people's location via cellphone.
License-plate databases don't contain names and addresses of vehicle owners, although that information is available from separate state Department of Motor Vehicle databases.
The Driver's Privacy Protection Act, passed in 1994 to thwart stalkers, limits public access to the DMV's information but nevertheless allows car owners' names and addresses to be obtained by government agencies, police, private investigators, insurers, researchers, private toll operators and, in some states, journalists. The data is still sometimes subject to abuse.
In 1998, for instance, a police lieutenant in Washington, D.C., pleaded guilty to extortion after looking up the plates of vehicles near a gay bar and blackmailing the vehicle owners.
"I'm terrified that someone could get hurt because of this data," says Mike Griffin, a Baltimore auto repossession agent who uses his own fleet of camera-equipped cars to collect about a million plates a month.
Mr. Griffin says he takes extensive security measures with the data, which he contributes to a private national database.
These private databases, each containing hundreds of millions of plates, could become the largest collection of people's movements within the U.S., says Mary Ellen Callahan, former chief privacy officer for the Department of Homeland Security.
"You could have a nationwide vision of where I was at a given time," says Ms. Callahan, who now runs the privacy practice at law firm Jenner & Block.
Law-enforcement officers say they use the technology to track down stolen cars, collect unpaid tickets and identify the vehicles of suspected criminals.
The two private plate-tracking companies identified by the Journal both say they act responsibly and are within their rights to collect the data.
Scott A. Jackson, founder of MVConnect LLC, the parent company of one of the two firms, says he won't sell the data to the public or to marketers.
He says the plate trackers are simply shooting video in public, something that is perfectly legal. "I take absolute exception to any government telling me that I can't go into public and take video," Mr. Jackson says.
"That's taking my freedoms away." He estimates his company has snapped "hundreds of millions" of photos of plates nationwide.
License-plate readers spread in the late 1960s, when film cameras were installed at some intersections to identify red-light runners.
Since then, the cameras, software and computer storage have improved, and prices have fallen. This makes storing and working with large license-plate photo databases affordable and realistic.
The price of one gigabyte of storage fell to $1.68 this year from $18.95 in 2005, a decline of 91%, according to market-research firm IDC.
It is expected to cost just pennies in a few years. Similarly, digital cameras and the software that can "read" letters and numbers from photos are improving dramatically.
Italian defense contractor Finmeccanica SpA introduced plate-recognition cameras to the U.S. in 2004 via its subsidiary, Elsag North America.
The technology originally was used to sort mail by reading addresses. Today, a standard two-camera system mounted on a police car costs $15,000, down from $25,000 originally, says Mark Windover, Elsag's chief executive.
Cynthia Lum, a professor at George Mason University, did a study in 2010 estimating that about 37% of large police departments were using plate readers.
"It's one of the most rapidly diffusing technologies that I've ever seen," says Ms. Lum, a former police officer and deputy director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy...
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