“Every once in a while our detectives will use the ALPR database for retrospective searches,” said Griffin, adding that the technology has proved useful to scan vehicles in neighborhoods surrounding crime scenes.

Griffin’s counterpart in Fitchburg, Officer Paul McNamara, said license scanner data played a crucial role in solving a string of indecent exposure incidents at Fitchburg State University in April 2011. At the request of the university police, McNamara entered the alleged flasher’s plate into his license-scan database. The system indicated that a suspect’s vehicle had passed the scanner just 10 minutes earlier, leading to a suspect’s arrest and later guilty plea to charges of indecent exposure and lewdness.

McNamara said that there is no formal process when another police department requests a licence inquiry of this kind into his unit’s database.

“It can’t be a fishing expedition, though,” he said.“We look at it as a form of mutual aid, so it has to be a serious criminal matter for us to share data.”

While law enforcement officials are enthusiastic, critics can point to alleged abuses:

■ In 2004, police tracked Canadian reporter Kerry Diotte via automated license scans after he wrote articles critical of the local traffic division. A senior officer admitted to inappropriately searching for the reporter’s vehicle in a license scan database in an attempt to catch Diotte driving drunk.

■ Plainclothes NYPD officers used license readers to scan license plates of worshipers at a mosque in 2006 and 2007, the Associated Press reported, under a program that was partially funded by a federal drug enforcement grant.

■ In December, the Minneapolis Police Department released a USB thumb drive with 2.1 million license plate scans and GPS vehicle location tags in response to a public records request, raising fears that such releases might help stalkers follow their victims. A few days later, the Minneapolis mayor asked the state to classify license scan data as nonpublic.

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