The Seattle Police scanned (spied) 1.6 million license plates in 3 months


If you drive in Seattle, there is a good chance the police department knows where your car has been at least once during the past three months.

Seattle police recorded license plates on 72 percent of Seattle’s streets while searching for stolen cars and chronic parking offenders during an 86-day period this past summer. In all, police made more than 1.6 million scans of more than 600,000 unique plates, according to an analysis of a department database.  

Nearly half of city streets received at least three visits from the license-plate scanners between May 11 and Aug. 5, according to the analysis. 

Citywide, the scans yielded 1,858 stolen cars and illegal parkers.

The analysis provides the first snapshot of the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) license-plate-scanner program. It has come under scrutiny amid concerns about how much information government agencies collect.

The program works like this: A dozen police vehicles travel the streets equipped with cameras that automatically scan plates and compare them to lists of stolen cars and people with at least four unpaid parking tickets. If there is a hit, the officer responds. Even if there is not, the record is stored for three months in an SPD database that can be used for future criminal investigations.

Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), complain that retaining the records on vehicles’ whereabouts could potentially lead to abuse.

To better understand the SPD’s database, The Seattle Times in late July requested a copy of it.

Police agencies in some states have denied those types of requests from reporters.

The numbers show the SPD scanned an average of nearly 19,000 plates per day during the time, including roughly 23,000 on weekdays, 11,000 on Saturdays and 8,000 on Sundays.

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