Cops Finally Limit License Plate Data Collection… Because of Hard Drive Space

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The Oakland Police Department, like many local police forces, employs a license plate reader, collecting data on locals’ commutes, rituals, and private behavior. Until recently, all the data from the plate surveillance was stored for however long a computer could hold it. But in discrete fashion the police department did away with the “no formal limit” rule and is now only keeping the data for six months.

What changed? Did police finally determine they should put a cap on the invasive surveillance of private citizens? Did they come to their senses after a detailed Ars Technica article about the privacy implications of mass license plate data collection, as Ars suggests?

Nah. According to the sergeant in charge of Oakland’s system, the computer’s hard drive just ran out of space and procedure kept them from getting another one.


The OPD system saving all the data, by the way, is a computer running Windows XP with an 80GB storage drive. At one point, the dataset the computer held had more than 4.6 million scans, reports Ars, and that only represented December 2010 through the end of May 2014. That’s a massive time span; in comparison, it seems like the new six-month limit will leave the 80GB drive mostly empty.

Which is a good thing. The data being collected is relatively harmless if viewed in a vacuum, but when cross referenced with other data sets a person’s private life could almost be plotted out on a map. Some states have already begun to recognize this practice as an invasion of privacy and banned the use of plate readers, like in New Hampshire, or at least limited the use, like in Maine, New Jersey and Virginia.


[Ars Technica]