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Palantir is helping California police develop controversial license plate database

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license plate scanner (federal signal)
license plate scanner (federal signal)

Throwing more light on the controversial use of police license plate readers, a new report from the Center for Investigative Reporting reveals the development of a new California database under development with the help of Palantir, a Silicon Valley firm whose data analysis technology is in wide use by the US intelligence and defense communities. According to the report, the company is party to a $340,000 contract to build the new infrastructure. The project is being spearheaded by the Northern California Intelligence Research Center — an office set up after the 9/11 terror attacks to enable police and intelligence agencies to share data.

License plate records will be held for two years

The new database will collate records coming in from 14 counties across the state, will be able to handle at least 100 million records, and will be accessible to both local and state law enforcement, according to the report. It also notes that license plate records will be held by the new database for two years, regardless of the data retention policies of local law enforcement agencies. The database's total size is unknown, as is the identity of the government organization that administers it. However, LA Weekly wrote last year that a precursor to the new California-wide database in use by Los Angeles police had logged more than 160 million data points.

Despite their undeniable effectiveness at identifying stolen vehicles ("100 times better than driving around looking for license plates" in the words of one San Leandro police officer), license plate scanners have come under sharp criticism from privacy groups like the EFF and ACLU, which sued the LAPD and County Sheriff’s Department in May for access to a week's worth of records from its license plate readers. Since the devices permit automated scans of some 14,000 plates during a single shift, privacy advocates argue that strict data retention policies need to be put in place to stop a useful law enforcement tool from turning into a comprehensive database of citizens’ movements. And while the Supreme Court ruled last year that warrantless GPS tracking violates the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable search, automated license plate readers don't face the same legal restriction.