TAMPA — Sitting in his marked patrol car parked on the median inside the Dale Mabry gate at MacDill Air Force Base last weekend, Clearwater police officer Kevin Klein pointed cameras as the cars streaming in for AirFest 2014.
Klein said that those driving through the gates to see the Air Force Thunderbirds and 18 other aerial performances didn’t know what he was doing there.
But the two cameras, mounted on the patrol car’s front window, were taking pictures of their license plates. Using technology developed by an Oldsmar data analysis firm, Klein was running the plates through law enforcement databases to see if there were any wanted criminals trying to get onto the home of U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Central Command.
MacDill Air Force Base security officials asked that Klein come across the Bay so he could use the scanning system developed by PlateSmart Technologies to help prevent any trouble at an airshow expected to draw about 200,000. A rotating series of MacDill security officers joined him in his car over the two days, he said.
“MacDill wanted to know what was coming on base,” said Klein. “They were worried about wanted people and stolen vehicles and tags.”
Officials from the 6th Air Mobility Wing, the base host unit, did not respond to a request for comment.
Klein said he scanned 11,182 plates and found only one warrant, but 198 cars registered to people with traffic violations or suspended or revoked licenses.
The warrant was a county warrant out of Monroe County, said Klein. The individual was pulled over, but no arrest was made.
He said he did not know what the warrant was for and neither did a spokeswoman for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office.
But Klein said it was likely for a traffic violation, because it was a county warrant for which no one at MacDill had jurisdiction to act on.
Not everyone is happy with license plate scanning technology. Civil liberties groups are worried that it can be misused by law enforcement and government agencies.
“Law enforcement agencies claim that [plate scanning] systems are no different from an officer recording license plate, time and location information by hand,” according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group. “They also argue the data doesn’t warrant any privacy protections because we drive our cars around in public. However, as five justices of the Supreme Court recognized last year in U.S. v. Jones, a case involving GPS tracking, the ease of data collection and the low cost of data storage make technological surveillance solutions such as GPS or [license plate scanning] very different from techniques used in the past.”
On its website, the EFF said that “because of privacy concerns, states including Maine, New Jersey, and Virginia have limited the use of [the scanning technology], and New Hampshire has banned them outright. Even the International Association of Chiefs of Police has issued a report recognizing that “recording driving habits” could raise First Amendment concerns because cameras could record “vehicles parked at addiction-counseling meetings, doctors’ offices, health clinics, or even staging areas for political protests.”
Clearwater police keep the data for six months, said Maj. Dan Slaughter.
“There have been no civil liberties issues raised directly” with the department,” he said, “but we have followed the issues raised in periodicals and legislative sessions. We have a restricted use of the data for criminal investigations and have not had any public records requests for the data that I am aware of.”
License plate scanning technology is not new to the Tampa area.
Last year, the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority said it captured about 19,000 license plates a day in its toll collection system.
“Under our policy, a law enforcement officer may request the photo, date, time and location of a specific license plate number,” said spokeswoman Sue Chrzan. “We do not provide any other identification. If we are served with a subpoena, we will provide whatever documentation is requested in that subpoena.”
The authority went to an all-camera system in 2010, said Chrzan. Public records laws allow the information collected to be stored for five years, she said.
AirFest was “one of many deployments of PlateSmart LPR for security at a public event,” Kathleen Chigos, president of PlateSmart Technologies.
The company developed the scanning technology, which links information on the images with national and state criminal data bases, Chigos said.
The technology was first used during the 2012 Republican National Convention, held in downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg, she said.
Clearwater police have been using similar technology for several years, said Klein, and have been using the PlateSmart system since the RNC.
The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office also uses PlateSmart.
“It allows us to do our job faster and quicker,” Sgt. Art Rowand told The Tribune last year. “Law enforcement all over the country run tags; that’s just what they do. It allows us to locate Amber Alerts, missing people, as well as stolen vehicles, people with expired tags, driver’s license issues.”
Port Richey also uses PlateSmart while Pinellas and Polk deputies use other plate reading systems.
Chigos said only agencies with access to criminal databases can use the technology to run those kinds of checks. However, the technology itself can be used by private companies, she said.
“If someone has recently been fired, you could put their license plate into a database and cameras could scan for that individual,” she said.
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