Watching the watchers: Trackthepolice.com

Watching the watchers is an important part of government transparency activism in 2013. We have published the results of our own watching here, and have long encouraged readers to pay attention to the introduction of new surveillance equipment in your neighborhoods and cities. One Minneapolis resident is watching the watchers in a truly innovative manner: by turning police surveillance tools back onto the police themselves. The project maps the past locations of local, state and federal law enforcement vehicles using automatic license plate reader (ALPR) data obtained via public records requests.

The Trackthepolice.com project describes itself thusly:

Track the Police is an online blog dedicated to tracking the movements of police and law enforcement personnel vehicles by using publicly gathered data via data practice act or FOIA. This data is part of the information that the Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPR) gather in many state including the State of Minnesota to track a vehicle’s movements. While the owner of this blog resides in Minneapolis, Track the Police welcomes submissions from anywhere in the country where ALPR are being used to track and gather data on residents. This blog is dedicated only to tracking the police and law enforcement vehicles. If they want to watch us, we’ll watch them back!

While Trackthepolice.com is the first website I'm aware of established to explicitly track police movements using license plate reader data collected by officials, it isn't the first time anyone has requested this kind of data or mapped it for the public. Back in August 2012 a Minneapolis reporter published data revealing the travel habits of the Mayor, prompting the police department to lobby for the classification of the information and thereby exempt it from public records disclosure. It appears as if the police will succeed in that effort, though some state legislators are also interested in protecting the public from over broad, long term data retention.

License plate reader data can be extremely revealing. One Trackthepolice.com entry describes how activists queried the license plate reader database for past location information on a car they suspected was detailed in a surveillance operation directed against people protesting the federal government's raid and investigation of Midwest antiwar activists. "Remember, if you watch us, we'll watch you back!" the activists write.

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