— They're on squad cars and street lights, and they track where you're driving. Across Minnesota, police and sheriffs have been using automated license plate readers for years to find stolen cars and aid investigations.
Their spreading use and questions of data security, fueled by recent breaches of statewide databases, has focused attention on the lack of regulation. Until the data was temporarily classified late last year, anyone could ask police for a list of when and where a car had been spotted.
Lawmakers will soon consider restrictions on the data stored via the readers, with Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, saying she plans to introduce a bill in the next few weeks.
There's little question the Legislature will restrict public access to police's license plate databases. The bigger question will be: How long should police be able to keep tracking information on law-abiding Minnesotans?
Holberg said the law needs to balance the concerns of police, who say keeping the data longer is valuable. Other advocates and lawmakers say tracking citizens for any length of time violates civil liberties.
"I really think that there needs to be a full vetting from law enforcement for why they need to hang on to this," said Rep. John Lesch, a St. Paul Democrat and chairman of the House Civil Law Committee.
Most license plate readers are mounted on squad cars, automatically scanning plates every minute on Minnesota roads. The system checks each against a statewide crime database, and the officer gets an alert when there's a "hit" for a wanted vehicle.
There at least 25 readers in Minnesota, but the precise number is unclear because no state agency keeps track of them. Jim Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association, said they're primarily used in urban Minnesota.