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Privacy Issues with License Plate Scanners

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1.The Way the Technology Works
Photo credit: Oregon Department of Transportation / Flickr

Living in a democracy, which is predicated on the rule of law, we find ourselves at odds when it comes to giving law enforcement agencies the tools they need to protect our lives and property, while still warding against government overreach that infringes upon our personal privacy.

With the advent of new technologies, that line is further blurred as the vast majority of us go about our daily routines without even realizing that we are under near constant surveillance from a host of electronic mediums. The latest technological arrow in law enforcement’s quiver is the incorporation of license plate scanners, which gives law enforcement officers a near instantaneous way to unobtrusively read a car’s license plate and return a report on whether the vehicle is suspected of being involved in a crime or has been stolen.

The Way the Technology Works

This new surveillance technology is fully capable of tracking the movements of each vehicle as it moves down the road, and its ready availability is ubiquitous. Mounted on road signs, bridges, power poles, and police cruisers around the nation; automatic license plate readers utilize small, high-speed cameras to literally capture photographs of thousands of license plates a minute.

Once photographed, the system’s software captures the plate number, as well as the date, time, and location of each scan. Whenever a scanner reads a plate, its automatically checks the information against lists of stolen or wanted vehicles, and sounds an alert if the system returns a hit on the license plate number.

Once in the system, the data is shared in an enormous database that pools into a regional database, and the information is potentially retained for years or indefinitely. It is this information collection and retention policies that have Civil Liberty watchdogs on edge.

Privacy Advocates Worry About Retention Policies

A 2012 Freedom of Information request by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) revealed that the system is ripe for abuse owning to the lack of safeguards regarding the use of the technology. The data dump came in from more than six-hundred state, local, and federal agencies, and illustrated that there was no comprehensive policy in place to govern the retention and destruction of these records according to a report in the Arkansas Times.

According to the Executive Director of the Arkansas ACLU, Rita Sklar, “We have very serious concerns about the use of license plate scanners. While scanners are a legitimate tool for narrowly focused law enforcement purposes such as identifying stolen vehicles, but storing the information about the cars of private citizens who aren’t suspected of wrongdoing is troubling.”

In pointing out the dangers of the system, Sklar also noted, “By collecting and storing information on all of us, it’s one step closer to a national database on all of our movements: what friends you go to see, what doctors, what political events you participate in, or which church you attend. It’s a terrible invasion of privacy that we need to be concerned with.”

Law Enforcement Sings Plate Scanner Technology Praises

Privacy advocates continue to agitate against this encroaching technology while police forces are singing the system’s praises as a potent tool in their arsenal to fight crime. Indeed, the website InfoWars has brought to light an appeal by the Los Angeles Police Department to block the aforementioned ACLU Freedom of Information request by noting that the department viewed every vehicle in the city as subject to investigation.

“We were disturbed when we began to see the technology used as a generalized surveillance tool,” says ACLU spokesman Jay Stanley. Fears that the technology could be used to track those participating in political rallies are just one of the concerns of privacy advocates.

Additional concerns have been raised regarding the retention policies of this data. One Michigan State legislator, Sam Sing, has proposed a bill that will mandate that any data collected from the system be deleted within 48 hours unless there is proof that a specific criminal activity took place.

“What do we do with this data? How long to we keep it? If there is no sense of criminal activity, at what point should we destroy that information?” Sing, an East Lansing Democrat asks reporters from the Detroit Free Press. “For me, it has to live up to the constitutional right of privacy that we have in this country.

In responding to Sing’s call for a 48-hour window, Terry Jungel, Michigan Sheriffs’ Association’s executive director demurred claiming that a six to twelve month window would be a more feasible retention policy. He did note however, “We’re not insensitive to people’s right to privacy.”

Technological Innovation Will Lead to More Civil Liberty Clashes in the Future

As technologies continue to evolve, we can expect to come across more instances where intrusive technologies take aim at our personal freedoms. Where we remain at a democracy will depend on how we integrate these technologies without trampling on our constitutional guarantees of privacy.

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