The State Patrol has begun testing a camera system at two ferry docks that automatically snaps photographs of license plates and checks the numbers against lists compiled by the FBI.
Then plates of all vehicles driven aboard ferries at Seattle's Colman Dock and the Bainbridge Island ferry terminal are being checked against lists of vehicles that were reported stolen; the subject of an Amber Alert; connected to suspected terrorists; or associated with felony arrest warrants, said Sgt. Trent Cain, spokesman for the State Patrol's Homeland Security division.
If a license plate matches one on the list, an alarm goes off at a State Patrol command center, Cain said. Troopers will then look at the photo to verify a match and then, if necessary, respond to the ferry dock, Cain said. The process could take as little as a minute, Cain said.
The photos are stored for 60 days and then purged from the system, according to a State Patrol news release. Numbers will not be shared with other agencies, Cain said.
Doug Honig, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said two months seemed too long for the government to maintain records of comings and goings of citizens.
"Programs like this are undertaken for laudable reasons," Honig said. "But if they don't have appropriate limits and controls, they end up ... moving us closer to a surveillance society."
Cain said the 60-day retention was in line with how long other footage, like that on other kinds of security cameras, is retained by the State Patrol.
"The only thing the database has is a bunch of license plates," Cain said. "You walk into a bank or a store and there's more cameras on you."
Cain said the cameras don't take photos of passengers they're designed to take a photograph of the rear license plate when a car drives past the toll booth.
The cameras capture license-plate numbers both day and night and are capable of getting a license-plate number off a car moving at a high rate of speed, Cain said.
"Basically, this is another layer of security to protect the infrastructure of our Washington State Ferry system," Cain said.
The system cost just under $250,000 to install, Cain said.
If the program is successful, the State Patrol will try to have cameras installed at all state ferry terminals, according to the release.
Leslie Anne Jones: 206-464-2745 or

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