If you drive in the city of Carlsbad, chances are pretty good your car’s license plate will be recorded on one of the city’s 158 cameras aimed at key intersections.
City council has given the go-ahead to replace 85 existing cameras and to add 43 more.
Carlsbad Police believe the license plate readers, or LPRs, are effective crime-fighting tools. In the five years since the city started using them, 430 stolen vehicles have been recovered and hundreds of people suspected of serious crimes like murder, kidnapping and sexual assault have been arrested.
“They really are a good tool for officers in the field and for our investigators to be able to utilize to help identify suspects and hold them accountable for the crimes they commit,” said Lt. Jeffery Smith, who runs the program.
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LPRs are also used during Amber alerts, checking license plates to identify vehicles that may be driven by child abductors.
Not everyone is excited about the program. Privacy advocates say that scanning license plates poses several civil liberties issues.
“This is essentially dragnet surveillance,” said Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. If you innocently drive by a place where a crime happened you could be targeted, Guariglia told NBC 7. “Suddenly you could be more vulnerable to more surveillance, to suspicion, to harassment by police officers, so it makes a suspect out of everybody.”
Guariglia noted that during the gig economy a lot of people, including rideshare drivers, share vehicles. “You don’t know what the person who used that car last did,” Guariglia said. "If they did something criminal, law enforcement could come after you."
Data retention also poses risks, especially if information winds up in the wrong hands, said Guariglia.
Carlsbad Police say they only share data with other law enforcement agencies within the state. That’s a policy that was recently reinforced after the discovery that some data had been shared with agencies outside California.
Lt. Smith called the new technology “fluid” and said when issues are discovered, policies are changed to safeguard people’s privacy and assure the department are good stewards of the information they receive.
Still, some of the drivers NBC 7 spoke to in downtown Carlsbad said they don’t like the thought that big brother is watching their every move.
David Stancliffe, who was visiting from northern California said “I don’t think we should be tracked. I think we should be trusted in some way. Shouldn’t we be trusted somehow in some way?”
Gary Gomez lives in Vista but often works in Carlsbad said he doesn’t appreciate anyone recording his license plate number. Ironically, a sign painted on the back window of his van featured a picture of a camera and the words “you’re being recorded, please stay back.”
Carlsbad Police plan to install the new license plate readers at 15 intersections on the city’s borders because statistics show 78% of serious crime in Carlsbad is committed by people who don’t live there.