FORT COLLINS - A city system making Old Town Fort Collins parking enforcement more efficient has also been collecting and storing far more data about people's cars than ever intended.
Purchased nearly 10 years ago, the truck-mounted AutoVu system automatically scans, recognizes and photographs every license plate it sees. It then tags each image with GPS coordinates and stores it in a secure database. The city's parking department uses the system to efficiently write tickets on cars parked too long in one space.
The pictures are used as evidence whenever someone contests a parking ticket and are supposed to be discarded after six months.
But following Coloradoan inquiries, city officials discovered the system has been retaining data for two years - four times longer than it's supposed to. And they realized the entire "secure" database must be given to anyone who requests it under Colorado sunshine laws, even though they will provide information about specific plates only to the vehicle's owner.
You can't ask the city to track your neighbor's plate, but you can get a copy of the entire database and perform the search yourself.
The Coloradoan obtained a copy of the database, and with the help of city officials, tracked the location of a reporter's Jeep to 12 locations during two years, mostly parked outside his Fort Collins apartment, but also outside four separate coffee shops, a parking lot and a spot along Riverside Avenue.
"Now that we know there's an issue, we're taking active steps to purge that data," said Fort Collins Parking Services Manager Randy Hensley. "If we can't justify the use of this, and how we use it, we shouldn't have it."
Last year, the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper published a map displaying the location, obtained via a similar public records request, of the 41 times that Mayor R.T. Rybak's car had been recorded by a license plate reader in the preceding year. In other cities, police officers patrolling the streets use the same technology to check for stolen cars. In Fort Collins, only parking enforcers use the license-plate reader.