License Plate Readers and Privacy Implications

Technology is always advancing in its ability to assist law enforcement in their duty to protect the public. While it is not necessarily a “new” advancement, license plate readers have just recently started to find their way into police cars across the country.  Unfortunately, for the most part, the use of advanced technology is rushed in with inadequate safeguards for the privacy of the public. The same can be said for the use of license plate readers and the fact that only a few states have imposed any restrictions upon their use. Luckily, a state bill proposed by Michigan State Representative Sam Singh provides a good guideline for other states to follow.

This is not an argument against the use of license plate readers in general because these devices do add a significant benefit to law enforcement. A police car with a mounted license plate reader can run through two to three thousand license plates per day. The license plates are analyzed in real time and run through multiple databases, including stolen and wanted vehicles, missing persons, and amber alerts. It takes less than a second to run a license plate through one of these databases and studies have shown that the readers have enhanced spotting criminals in these areas.

The issue is that, while it only takes seconds to analyze a license plate, the data is then stored and retained, sometimes for many years. The data storage includes keeping track of the date, time of day, and the GPS location of the scanned vehicles. Therefore, this information, if left unchecked, could theoretically allow someone to find out exactly where a vehicle has been over the past couple of years. For example, the license plate database for the San Diego Association of Governments has over 49 million entries, an average of 25 photos for each vehicle registered in San Diego County. Currently, this database could not show where each car in San Diego had been over the past two years, but as the use of these readers continues to grow, that could become the case.

Currently, less than ten of the fifty states have any restriction upon license pate readers. This means that for each state, not only is it likely that there is no restriction on how long the data can be stored, there is likely no restriction on public records requests. Therefore, the information could be accessible to your boss who wants to see where you were on a particular day, or even a divorce attorney wanting to track down where a client’s spouse was at a particular time.

Singh’s legislation would limit the license plate data in a number of ways. First, the data could only be retained for 48 hours, as opposed to the 18-month restriction in Maine or the potentially unlimited retention in other states. Further, the bill would make the data exempt from public records requests and would also limit how private companies may use license plate readers.

This legislation would provide a good guideline for states with limited or no restrictions upon the devices to follow. The most important piece of the legislation is the 48-hour retention period. Since it only requires a few seconds for an analysis of a license plate through law enforcement databases, this would balance the usefulness of the technology with the potential for privacy abuses.

Limiting access to the data to law enforcement officials fortifies this balance. Limited access would protect the public from allowing any individual the ability to track another citizen’s whereabouts over time. Empowering citizens with the tracking abilities of law enforcement could have grave implications. For example, this information could aid a stalker, or even enable a kidnapper or robber to establish when the best opportunity to commit a crime would present itself.

Restricting the use of license plate readers to law enforcement is also important to protect privacy. If any private company could use license plate readers, it would be even more difficult to regulate the use and storage of license plate data. This could eventually lead to large databases of public information in private hands. Of course, there would be instances where private companies would need this technology, for example, a Tollway Authority. Still, the use by a Tollway Authority would not have nearly the same implications because their license plate readers are stationary and therefore, can be almost entirely avoided by a driver depending on his or her route.

While license plate readers have greatly aided law enforcement officials in a number of areas, this technology could have grave implications if its use gets out of hand. Therefore, to make use of this technology while protecting the privacy of the public, it is imperative that states enact restrictions similar to those adopted in Representative Singh’s bill.



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