Donna Sciulli is one of the most photographed women in Pittsburgh.
On Aug. 30, they snapped shots of her picking up groceries at the Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. in the Strip District. Two days earlier, shutters flew as she drove past the U.S. Steel Tower.
And outside her Beechview home, she's been pictured nearly a dozen times.
Ms. Sciulli is not a celebrity. She is, however, one of the 80,000 Pittsburgh drivers whose license plates had been scanned multiple times in August by the Pittsburgh Parking Authority, which is using cameras mounted on cruisers to record a massive database of where and when everyday people go about their business.
Now entering its eighth year, the authority's License Plate Reader program has photographed several million vehicles in the city. Designed to pick out scofflaws from the countless rows of cars parked on Pittsburgh's public streets, the cameras alert enforcement officers when they drive by a vehicle with too many tickets. On goes the dreaded boot.
But because of loose privacy policies at the Parking Authority, the system has allowed license plate records to accumulate for up to 30 days, allowing anyone with access to the database to track an individual car throughout the city based on where and when it has been scanned.
That includes you, by the way: The Parking Authority says the license plate database is a public record, opening your travels to anyone who bothers to fill out a right-to-know request.
From her kitchen table, Ms. Sciulli looked over the photographs of her tan sedan, parked outside on Fallowfield Avenue. Who would have thought, she said, that she was the target of continuous surveillance?
"It's like they're following me," she said. "It seems like they're almost stalking you. I could understand if someone was reporting me to the police, but ... I never would have thought about this."
2005: enter the 'Bootfinder'
The parking authority has been in the surveillance business since 2005, when it first contracted with Wisconsin-based Duncan Solutions to buy the company's Bootfinder Mobile License Plate Recognition camera. By 2009, the authority's two boot vehicles were scanning more than 100,000 license plates a month; these days, they usually hit 200,000.
Promotional materials from the company obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union boast of the system's prowess, saying it can read any type of plate "24 hours DAY or NIGHT in all kinds of weather." Since each car has at least two cameras, officials can record both parked vehicles and those passing by in the opposite lane.
Scanners aren't cheap: In 2012, the authority paid $21,595 for a single unit.
The system stores license plate images and GPS locations for 30 days, whether or not the car had any fines. A single month's data could entirely fill an iPhone.
In August, the authority collected 144,050 valid scans, not including misread numbers or the many road signs that were mistaken for vanity plates. All in all, the authority photographed 81,000 cars -- and hit about a third of them at least twice.
Of these, 162 cars had high enough fines to face the boot, a 0.01 percent success rate. According to the parking authority, 3,886 vehicles are boot-eligible at this time.
Most recorded cars were parked or traveling near the authority's enforcement hot spots: Downtown, Oakland, Shadyside, South Side. But many were driving through places the Parking Authority would have little interest -- say, across the Fort Duquesne Bridge.
The dubious honor of most-photographed car goes to the silver Honda CR-V parked at 18th Street and Penn Avenue, which was pictured 39 times. Runner-up: The Highwoods Properties shuttle, which frequently idles Downtown outside PPG Place.
There soon will be more eyes on the ground. In April, the Parking Authority board approved the purchase of three new camera systems for $120,000.
And on Thursday, the board voted to purchase a new computer server -- the old one wasn't big enough to store everything they've been scooping up.
All that data
All this worries ACLU staff attorney Sarah Rose, who requested records on the authority's LPR system last year as part of a national survey. A privacy advocate, she doesn't see a reason for the authority to retain thousands of license plate records past the end of a shift, let alone the end of the month.
"I think the more data the government gets, the more likely it is the government will be able to track our movements throughout the course of a day, a week or a month," she said. "We understand there are legitimate law enforcement purposes this technology can be used for. But we have serious concerns about retaining data that does not result in a hit."
According to an ACLU report released in July, more than 1,200 agencies across the country use plate-reading technology. That includes dozens in Pennsylvania, such as the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia police departments and the Pennsylvania State Police.
The net of scanners, both stationary and mobile, has become dense enough to track a single car across the state. Amid revelations over the National Security Agency's domestic spying program, the public has grown less tolerant of surreptitious monitoring, advocates say.
But little can be done about it legally. Even though everyone expects anonymity in a crowd, courts have ruled what takes place on a public street is undeniably public, says Clay Calvert, a University of Florida professor and author of "Voyeur Nation: Media, Privacy and Peering in Modern Culture."
"When you're in a public place, you do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy," he said. "Typically, if a car is parked in a public place, there is no expectation of privacy."
Or, as Pittsburgh Parking Authority board chairwoman Linda Judson puts it: "If you want an absolute right to privacy, stay in your house."
'We're not sharing that information'
David Onorato is not out to spy on anyone.
The parking authority's executive director says he's just trying to make scofflaws pay their due. Indeed, he's excited to bring the three new camera rigs online, which will search out visitors overstaying their welcome in permit-restricted neighborhoods.
He has no plans to revisit the 30-day storage policy and says there's no need. After all, the authority does not share license plate data with police or any other agency.
"The public doesn't have to worry," Mr. Onorato said. "We're not sharing that information."
Well, yes, they are -- they provided it to the Post-Gazette, albeit after a legal review. Even so, authority leaders don't understand what the fuss is about.
"I'm here in the 21st century, and I don't find it to be a creepy factor," said Ms. Judson, a lawyer. "The expectation of privacy is greatly diminished these days."
Ms. Rose, the ACLU attorney, would agree. But she suggests Mr. Onorato take a page from the Pennsylvania State Police, which erases unnecessary data at the end of every shift, despite having one of the most comprehensive monitoring systems around.
Even Sgt. Richard Begenwald, head of the city police's auto squad, was surprised by the authority's willingness to share its database. Though his unit saves plate information collected from their single camera rig for three months -- 300,000 images -- he would never open it to the public.
Elsewhere, agencies have changed policies after public pressure. In Minneapolis, Mayor R.T. Rybak ordered revisions to the city's retention policy after the Star Tribune published a map of the 41 times his car had been photographed in the previous year. In Birmingham, England, authorities tore down cameras recording license plates in predominantly Muslim suburbs after outcry.
Don't expect the same response from the Parking Authority. Standing firm, Mr. Onorato bristles at Ms. Sciulli's accusations of "stalking," arguing that photographing her license plate automatically is legally the same as driving to Beechview and recording her car's position by hand daily.
The courts have agreed, as cold a comfort as it is. Ms. Sciulli, of course, is the one in front of the camera lens. The view from there is a bit more black and white.
"This is my car," she said. "If they scan me once and I don't have any tickets, they should leave me alone."
Andrew McGill: email@example.com or 412-263-1497. First Published September 22, 2013 4:00 AM