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East Bay Company's Massive Car Tracking Database Sparks Debate

LIVERMORE (CBS 5) - If you own a car, chances are police know where you've been lately – thanks to a Bay Area company that is keeping them in the loop.

An increasing number of police forces have license plate scanners mounted on their patrol cars. They take pictures of every license plate as it goes by, then when it spots one that is wanted or belongs to a criminal, officers move in.

Now an East Bay company is taking it a step further. Vigilant Video of Livermore keeps a massive database that keeps a record of vehicle sightings. According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, Vigilant collects hundreds of millions of license plate scans and keeps them in what it calls the "National Vehicle Location Service."

Law enforcement can access the national database and - the company reports - it has led to bad guys getting thrown in jail...missing children getting found.

License plate photos are collected for the database - not just by law enforcement - but by private citizens, including repo companies. Tow truck drivers looking for debtors are also among the many people scanning and entering license plate photos as well as the car's location.

So how long do they keep the information? And do they allow anyone besides law enforcement to access it? We asked, but Vigilant Video denied our request for an interview.

Lee Tien, with the Electronic Frontier foundation, said we need to ask some questions about privacy. What if the database that tracks your car's every move is shared with someone other than law enforcement – such as prospective employers or divorce attorneys?

"The problem is - in going after the bad guys…they're going after everybody," said Tien "So you have this sort of a gap...where law enforcement and the private actors are just jumping in and saying, 'hey, we can do this.' But just because you can do something doesn't mean you should."

Police agencies have restrictions on how long they can keep the video. One concern is that a private company will not have the same time constraints, and it's not entirely clear how they might use the information.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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