A couple of years ago, we discussed the increasing use license-plate-recognition camera technology and the possible privacy, civil liberty and security implications about the surveillance tech used to gather and record information on drivers’ movements. At the time, we noted that license-plate-reader technology (also called automated license plate readers, ALPRs), like other surveillance systems, has the ability to create a profile of an individual using personal, possibly sensitive data. Now, the technology is in even more jurisdictions nationwide, and the privacy questions remain.
Two examples of the proliferation of the license-plate-reader technology are in Rhode Island and Tennessee. In Rhode Island, state legislators are considering HB 5531, “An Act Relating to Motor and Other Vehicles — Electronic Confirmation and Compliance System,” which would create a state-wide license-plate-reader network to identify and fine uninsured drivers. The chief sponsor is Rep. Robert Jacquard (D), who “said he has made a number of changes to address fears of growing state surveillance and concerns the cameras could be used to expand highway tolling,” reports the Providence Journal.
The ACLU of Rhode Island testified (pdf) against the bill, noting “this legislation would nevertheless facilitate the capture and storage of real time location information on every Rhode Islander on the road, with no guidance as to how this information is to be used, at the benefit of a third-party corporation.” ACLU-RI wants the state to “implement clear and specific restrictions on the use of this technology, particularly by law enforcement” and notes such restrictions are included in HB 5989, whose chief sponsor is Rep. John G. Edwards (D).
That bill, “An Act Relating to State Affairs and Government — Surveillance Devices,” seeks to “prohibit surveillance on Rhode Island’s roadways unless specifically authorized by statute or court order,” Edwards said when introducing the bill. He noted that ALPRs “have raised concerns that the information collected may be inaccurate, shared without restrictions, retained longer than necessary, and used or abused in ways that could infringe upon citizens’ privacy.” He also notes that his legislation restricting ALPR use is not the first in the nation. Thirteen “other states that have enacted legislation limiting the use of ALPRs. Six of those states place restrictions on government or law enforcement use. Eight states limit how long data can be retained. Florida, Maine, Maryland and Utah laws specify that ALPR data is confidential and exempt under public records laws.”
One county in Tennessee, Davidson County, recently banned the use of ALPRs and other surveillance technology, but it is facing resistance in the satellite city of Belle Meade. The Davidson County Metropolitan Council’s ordinance prohibiting the use of certain forms of surveillance technology made clear that privacy concerns were important, stating, “that the misuse of, or overreliance upon, surveillance technology and electronic data gathering poses substantial and significant dangers to the privacy rights of citizens and to the fundamental values, civil rights and civil liberties of citizens, including rights guaranteed by the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.”
However, Belle Meade officials have declined to obey the new ordinance, passed in March. Although Davidson County officials aren’t happy, it appears they cannot force Belle Meade to follow the ordinance if the city restricts the ALPR usage in some ways. “Metro Council Attorney Mike Jameson tells WPLN that it appears Belle Meade can use its camera, as long as it is for police purposes, which are exempt from Metro jurisdiction,” Nashville Public Radio reported. And not only is Belle Meade refusing to take down its one ALPR but “Belle Meade is preparing to buy up to 19 additional LPRs — which could monitor practically all entry points to the city.”
As the use of license-plate-reader camera technology continues to increase throughout the country, questions of privacy and civil liberties remain. For example, what happens to all the data on innocent individuals — data that could reveal highly personal information such as therapy visits? Often, we don’t know what the restrictions are on the collection and use of the data. We need more focus on the impact of the use of such surveillance technologies. Some states have passed laws restricting the use of ALPRs and other surveillance systems because of concerns about privacy and civil liberties, but it needs to be a nationwide concern.