TAMPA — Earlier this month, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office got a tip a stolen vehicle had been seen near the University of South Florida. Investigators sent deputies to the area, found the car and arrested the two men inside. Both were charged with grand theft auto.
The tip didn’t come from an alert citizen. It came from a tag reader that reads license plates from passing vehicles, a process similar to the one used to bill motorists on toll roads in Tampa Bay and throughout the state.
Unlike that system, though, the sheriff’s office tag reader sends the license plate information through the National Crime Information Center and Florida Crime Information Center databases. If a “hit’’ arises – a stolen car, say, or a car registered to someone with an outstanding arrest warrant – the system flags that information for deputies.
The tag reader is the latest weapon in a growing arsenal of high-tech devices used by law enforcement agencies throughout the country. Police departments and sheriff’s offices say the system’s ability to process thousands of license plates a day is an effective, low-cost way of solving car thefts and catching criminals.
The notion, though, that the government is capturing information about the whereabouts of thousands of law-abiding motorists every day has raised privacy concerns. The growing popularity of tag readers prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to conduct a national study on the issue this summer.
“The real problem is what happens with that data that they collected about you,” said Florida ACLU spokesman Baylor Johnson. “Who then has access to that data? If you have done nothing wrong, there is no reason they should keep that data.”
Hillsborough County’s tag reader consists of two cameras installed on a pole at 15th Street and 122nd Avenue and has been in use for about a year. The tag reader software was included when the sheriff’s office received a $1.3 million federal grant in 2010 for equipment and installation of the Eye on Crime surveillance system in the neighborhoods around USF.
The $25,000 device is the only one in Hillsborough County; its results will determine whether the pilot program is broadened.
So far, it’s been a hit with authorities.
“The system has been extremely successful,” said Major J.R. Burton, who oversees the sheriff’s office District I operations where the tag reader system is located. “I would love to see it expanded.”
The system’s value to law enforcement is its ability to record huge numbers of license plates and run that information through crime databases. For instance, the two cameras installed near USF read 1.3 million tags over a 90-day period, a rate almost incalculably higher than deputies would have been able to do on their own.
The tag reader system recorded 1,159 hits, including stolen plates, stolen vehicles, vehicles used in commission of a crime, wanted persons and missing persons. Using information from the tag readers, the sheriff’s office has been able to recover eight stolen vehicles in the last 90-day cycle, Burton said.
“We love it,” he said. “If you can solve a handful of cases you ordinarily wouldn’t solve, why wouldn’t you invest in it?”
The cameras are useful in other ways, too, Burton said. When someone shot bullets into a car on 15th Street, not far from where the tag readers are installed, investigators reviewed the video, saw the car and its license plate, and went to the home of the person to whom the vehicle was registered.
Although the case remains under investigation, deputies have been able to advance the case with help from the tag reader cameras, Burton said.
“In my book, it paid for itself that day,” Burton said. “That was a lead we would have never of had.”
The ACLU’s biggest concern about tag readers is what happens to the data, Johnson said.
“Any law enforcement technology, especially surveillance technology, is a two-edge sword,” Johnson said.
The group’s study of tag readers, completed in July, focused on how long the data collected on law-abiding motorists is kept and whether law enforcement agencies have procedures in place to regularly delete the information.
“Our problem is what happens to the data of the 99.9 percent of cars that aren’t involved in crimes,” Johnson said. “In most cases, there is no policy of getting rid of the data. Unless they are proactively taking steps to get rid of the data, it just lasts forever.”
Burton said the sheriff’s office is aware of privacy concerns and that the county’s system has safeguards built into it.
The sheriff’s office deletes the data after 90 days except for tag information needed on existing cases, Burton said.
“It’s gone and there’s no way to retrieve it,” said Burton, who also said access to the information is restricted to certain categories of employees.
Burton also noted that before a deputy investigates a hit from the tag reader, the information is verified by a human being. Sometimes the tag reader can misinterpret letters or numbers on a license plate, for instance, misreading a “1” for an “I” or an “O” for a “Q,” he said.
Burton doesn’t worry about the occasional comments about Big Brother that tag reader systems get. Surveillance cameras have become ubiquitous in public areas like stores, businesses and elsewhere, he said. The grant that paid for the tag reader software was also used to install 29 cameras to look for criminal activity in the neighborhoods west of USF.
“If you’re not doing anything illegal, do you have anything to worry about if your tag is being captured at 15th (Street) and 122nd (Avenue)?” Burton asked. “I see that as a non-issue.”