The Kansas City Star reports on an issue we’ve seen before: Government use of automatic license-plate recognition cameras. Use of the systems is growing. In March, USA Today reported: “Departments in Denver and Colorado Springs; South Portland, Maine; Gwinnett, Douglas and Cherokee counties in Georgia; and Clinton, Conn., are planning to deploy or have already added License Plate Recognition (LPR) systems this year, officials from those agencies said.”
I discussed the issue when Washington, D.C., began expanding the use of these license plate readers. One of the biggest questions is: What happens to all the data on innocent individuals? In the UK, police admitted (under the pressure of Freedom of Information Act requests) that they are keeping for five years the data from license plate scanners recording the trips of 10 million drivers a day — even those drivers who are innocent.
Constant surveillance treats all individuals as if they are already considered suspicious or guilty. Ubiquitous surveillance occurs in certain situations, such as prisons. Do we want people driving or walking in public to become as watched and tracked as prisoners?
Is this data collection worth the civil liberties costs? Though the scanners do find some criminals, there is a cost-effectiveness argument to be made. For example, in Arizona, “Of the thousands of license plates scanned each day, only a small fraction of the vehicles are tied to some possible criminal activity.”
The Kansas City Star reports:
The readers use three infrared cameras mounted on top of the trunk, pointed in different directions, to constantly scan for nearby license plates. The system compares each plate to lists of stolen vehicles, owners wanted on outstanding warrants, Amber Alert information and more.
Results pop up on the patrol car’s laptop computer, which shows a close-up photo of the tag, a color photo of the vehicle, the vehicle’s location and any alerts.
The information can be stored for months or longer, eventually revealing the travel patterns of criminals and average residents alike — a troubling prospect for privacy advocates, who are concerned about how the data could be used. […]
After one month, the readers have generated more than 640,000 “plate reads” in Kansas City alone. Police didn’t have data on stolen vehicles recovered or scofflaws arrested. […]
The ACLU chapter in Maine fought to ban the devices. Earlier this year, the group’s executive director, Shenna Bellows, testified before lawmakers that the database could be misused.
“Already, other jurisdictions are sharing these databases with repo companies looking to repossess vehicles whose owners are behind on payments,” she told the committee. “The commercial and political interest in these types of databases is enormous.” […]
Over time, as more information is collected, the database is more likely to reveal a particular vehicle’s movements, according to a privacy study released last year by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which supports police use of the license plate readers.
The study noted that residents may worry that cameras would collect their license plate numbers at places with which they may not prefer to be linked, such as addiction counseling meetings, doctors’ offices or staging areas for political protests.
Police agencies should adopt a policy that regulates the collection and use of the data, to reduce residents’ anxiety, according to the study. Area police departments, including Kansas City, don’t yet have such policies.