License-plate readers nab German road-rage shooter

A successful investigation into a dangerous driver in Germany is likely to spark a nationwide privacy debate.

In a bizarre story out of Germany, authorities recently arrested a truck driver believed to be responsible for more than 700 shootings at other cars on German roads since 2008. The key to the investigation was a high-tech surveillance system equipped with license-plate readers, which one police official said helped them find the "needle in a haystack."

The 57-year-old truck driver had been firing at cars for the past five years, reportedly as a result of "anger and frustation on the road," Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office President Jorg Ziercke recently told reporters. In November, police upped the reward for the shooter to $130,000 after evidence showed that he had begun using higher-caliber weapons on other cars. German police had considered the driver responsible for the shootings, only one of which caused serious injury to a driver, one of the country's most wanted criminals.

However, the surveillance tools used to find the culprit is likely to spark a privacy debate in the country. Germany's government has long been an advocate of its citizens privacy, going so far as to criticize U.S. companies for their questionable privacy policies.

According to a report from Spiegel Online Internatonal, police initially tried to find the culprit by driving trucks on the roads where the most shootings had occurred, hoping to goad the responsible driver into shooting at their truck. When that fell short, police reportedly sought to review surveillance video available on German roads. Although Germany's toll system collects data on trucks on its highways, strict laws prohibit police from accessing that data. From Spiegel Online:

So they essentially constructed one of their own. On seven sections of the autobahns in question, police erected equipment that was able [to] recognize and store the license plate numbers of vehicles that drove by. Using that data, they were able to identify vehicles that passed a certain section of highway at roughly the same time as did a target vehicle.

Over a five-day period in April, police received six separate reports of shootings from a truck driver, according to the report. Using this information and its surveillance system, police traced a potential route that the driver used and reviewed data collected by the license plate readers positioned in the area, eventually spotting one truck that was on the scene of all six shootings, Spiegel reports.

In the process, "60 to 80 million sets of data from completely innocent people" were collected without any legal basis, Edgar Wagner, the top data protection official for the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, said in a statement, according to Spiegel Online.

In Germany, this argument could go several ways. First is the legality of the custom, wide-reaching surveillance system. On the flip side is the program's success - just as NSA officials claimed the NSA's surveillance tools have thwarted 50 potential terrorist attacks, there will be some in Germany who praise it for arresting a psychopath who apparently had no plan to stop shooting innocent passersby. Then there's the current law regarding Germany's toll system. In the wake of the case, some may argue that the police should have been granted access to the data collected on truck drivers during an investigation seeking a truck driver, while privacy advocates will defend it.

So, while debate rages in the U.S. over NSA-employee-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden and his leak of information on the U.S. government's data collection policies, even countries with the most highly touted privacy regulations face similar scrutiny.

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