Carloads of data: The Pittsburgh Parking Authority must purge its files quickly

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The Pittsburgh Parking Authority expends a lot of resources tracking down ticket scofflaws, but it doesn't seem to be getting much of a return on the investment. In the process, the authority is also amassing too much information about everyday motorists and retaining it for too long.

This troubling policy invites abuse.

The authority has scanners mounted on cars that roam city neighborhoods, capturing license plate images of vehicles in their path. In August, for instance, 144,050 scans were collected on 81,000 vehicles -- a third of them were hit more than once. Of those, 162 had racked up enough tickets to warrant getting the boot, the big, metal clamp that immobilizes a car until the owner pays all outstanding fines and fees.

That's not many, considering the authority has a list of 3,886 vehicles that are eligible for booting. Still, finding and fining repeat parking violators isn't the problem. Neither is the scanning method itself.

But the authority has been sucking up so many images that it had to buy a new computer server to handle it all. And that's a problem.

The authority retains all the data for a month, long after it's had a chance to target the offending motorists. And while those files sit, authority employees as well as any citizen who files a request under the state's right-to-know law can gain access to them.

In contrast, the Pennsylvania State Police, which gathers similar information during patrols, erases all extraneous data at the end of every work shift. Likewise, once the parking authority checks to see if a vehicle is subject to fines, its interest in that car, truck or motorcycle should end.

Yet leaders at the authority seem tone deaf to concerns about another intrusion on people's privacy. Executive director David Onorato says he has no plans to change the system, and authority board chair Linda Judson advised, "If you want an absolute right to privacy, stay in your house." In other words, public be damned.

While it is true that there is no right to privacy in public spaces, there also is no public interest in where a private vehicle has been once it's been determined that no violations are pending.

The authority can keep scanning for scofflaws. It just needs to purge its database a lot faster.

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