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Editorial: City should show need to keep license plate scans

Baby Brother has its eyes on you – and your ride.

The Albuquerque Police Department’s random scanning of license plates to run through the National Crime Information Center – and keeping them on file for a period of time – is one of many government intrusions into citizens’ lives that have recently come to light.

Like the others, there is value in the practice in terms of security and fighting crime or terrorism. And like the others, it must be carefully monitored and kept in check.

As APD officers patrol the city performing their regular duties, scanners atop select units scan license plates in driveways, parking lots and on the streets. The federal computer database attempts to tie them to reported stolen cars or other criminal activities.

Until very recently the information has been kept for six months before purging, even if nothing is found. That changed last Friday as Journal reporter Patrick Lohmann made inquiries for his Sunday A1 story on the practice. Now, it will be kept for two weeks, unless City Councilor Brad Winter is successful in his planned legislation to cut that to one week.

Recent revelations that the U.S. National Security Administration was mining phone records and Internet activities and the Justice Department was secretly collecting phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors show how deeply into the private lives of Americans some government agencies are willing to delve.

No one is accusing APD of misusing the records, but once an agency has the information in hand it is ripe – and too tempting – for abuse.

It has happened before, from the infamous files J. Edgar Hoover kept on U.S. citizens, or records kept in the 1980s by APD’s intelligence division. The division reportedly collected information on many noteworthy Albuquerqueans who were not suspected of a specific crime. After word of the secret files got out and a legal battle, a top city official ordered them burned before a judge could order a halt to their destruction.

It appeared to be a very easy jump for the city from six months to 14 days, and Mayor Richard Berry and interim Chief Allen Banks deserve credit for moving quickly once the practice was called into question.

That said, the city should lay down a solid case for keeping the license plate records at all, whether 14 days or seven. Absent that, they should be deleted as soon as the plate has been cleared.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.