Courts & Crime

Technology gives police more power but can lead to privacy worries

Police Officer Chris Hayes wouldn't dream of manually checking all the license plates on a line of cars parked in downtown Kansas City to see if any car had been reported stolen.

That would take too long.

But by using an automated license plate reader, Hayes and his partner can run all the tags while driving past — without even tapping the brakes.

Kansas City police last month joined a growing number of area cities that have installed automated license plate readers on some patrol cars.

The readers use three infrared cameras mounted on top of the trunk, pointed in different directions, to constantly scan for nearby license plates. The system compares each plate to lists of stolen vehicles, owners wanted on outstanding warrants, Amber Alert information and more.

Results pop up on the patrol car's laptop computer, which shows a close-up photo of the tag, a color photo of the vehicle, the vehicle’s location and any alerts.

The information can be stored for months or longer, eventually revealing the travel patterns of criminals and average residents alike — a troubling prospect for privacy advocates, who are concerned about how the data could be used.

Police, meanwhile, love the technology’s crime-fighting potential.

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