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Cost, Privacy Questions Arise About Freeport License Plate Readers

FREEPORT, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) -- License plate readers have been helping police locate criminals and flag moving violations, but now there are questions about the cost of the new technology in Freeport, Long Island.

As CBS News' Anna Werner reported, the license plate readers mean you had better not have anything to hide if you're driving in Freeport.

Freeport unveiled 27 mounted license plate readers that encircle the perimeter of the 4.3-square-mile village at nearly every entrance. They automatically cross-reference with state, federal and Department of Motor Vehicles databases.

Freeport police Chief Miguel Bermudez and his 95 officers track every vehicle with 27 fixed cameras at all 11 entry points to the municipality.

If your plate shows up on a list of offenders, an alarm goes out to the entire police force.

The reason for the system, Bermudez said, is, "We want to reduce crime."

And indeed, police in Freeport have made 28 arrests with the cameras, including a murder suspect from Norfolk, Virginia.

But the hits keep on coming and coming, mostly for inspired registrations. Bermudez said tracking such comparatively minor infractions was not the goal.

"We were looking at stolen vehicles or vehicles wanted in crimes," he said.

After only three months, the Freeport cameras have tracked 17 million plates in the village of 50,000.

In exchange for the security, Freeport police are drowning in data and overtime is way up. Now, Bermudez has asked the state and federal government for help.

"We currently have a force of 95 officers," he said. "We can use many more."

The readers do make mistakes. One of them misread the 800 number on the back of a Ryder truck for the plate of a stolen car.

There is also the question of where all the information ends up.

"All of that data is being stored somewhere," said Jason Starr of the American Civil Liberties Union. It can be shared. It can be pulled. It can be sent to other law enforcement agencies. It can be breached by third parties."

License plate readers are used in nearly every state. The ACLU has filed three lawsuits – two of them regarding the scope of information collected.

There have also been complaints about abuse.

Bermudez is adamant that the plate information taken in Freeport is never linked to a person unless a crime is indicated, and is dumped after 180 days.

When asked about concerns about innocent people being tracked, Bermudez said, "We're not looking at that data."

When Werner pointed out that it is still possible for police to look at innocent people's data, Bermudez replied: "It's just so much coming in. it's impossible to really to look at that kind of information."

Bermudez said there is actually so much information that he needs seven more officers just to keep up with it.

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