For eight years, the Pittsburgh Parking Authority has snapped millions of pictures of parked vehicles, storing license plate photos for up to 30 days in a database that could be used to track a car's movement across the city.
But no longer. In response to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette open records request this week, the authority said it is tightening its data retention policy and will regularly delete information collected by its vehicle-mounted license plate reader cameras, which scan streets in search of scofflaws.
"Effectively immediately, the authority will be deleting the type of information sought by your request on a daily basis," Parking Authority executive director David Onorato wrote in a letter dated Oct. 11. "This type of information will no longer be accessible, except with respect to vehicles that have outstanding parking tickets."
Mr. Onorato would not elaborate on his decision. But the move won instant praise from the American Civil Liberties Union, which has criticized the overuse of license plate recording systems nationwide.
"We're really, really pleased they've recognized the serious privacy dangers at issue here," said Witold Walczak, legal director for the Pennsylvania ACLU. "It is really creepy when you can say, 'You were at the Giant Eagle at such and such a time.' "
Since 2008, the authority has used high-speed cameras mounted on trucks to scan hundreds of thousands of parked cars, checking their license plates and booting cars with outstanding fines.
Mr. Walczak, like many other Pittsburghers, has some skin in the game: His own car was scanned nine times between August and October, even though he had no fines. In total, the Parking Authority photographed more than 150,000 vehicles in the two-month period, many of them multiple times.
Legally, the authority is doing nothing wrong. Under current law, residents have little right to anonymity on public streets. As Pittsburgh Parking Authority board chairwoman Linda Judson put it last month, "If you want an absolute right to privacy, stay in your house."
But privacy advocates say advances in technology have made surveillance cheaper and easier than ever, raising the real concern that an average citizen could face continuous monitoring by one agency or another.
Some legal experts say recent Supreme Court decisions on electronic monitoring have left wiggle room along these lines, possibly opening the door to a future challenge of widespread surveillance.
Regardless, automatic license plate readers are now a staple among many major police departments, including the Pennsylvania State Police and the Pittsburgh police.
While the authority told the ACLU it does not share scanned license plates, Mr. Onorato later provided data to the Post-Gazette after the newspaper filed an open records request. By his latest letter, he won't be doing that again -- for anyone.
Andrew McGill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1497. First Published October 16, 2013 8:00 PM