Police Must Use License Plate Readers With Good Judgment

By Matthew Harwood

 LAS VEGAS - Police departments that use license plate recognition (LPR) technology, and the massive amount of data it generates, should be mindful of the privacy issues it raises, advised a former general counsel for the Chicago Police Department.

Donald R. Zoufal—safety and security executive for SDI, a homeland security systems integrator—described the possible constitutional issues that could arise from LPR technology during a symposium held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police on Tuesday.

Police departments generally use LPR technology to identify stolen cars, but the data can also be used as a forensic tool to solve crimes. Civil libertarians, however, fear the mass surveillance technology keeps tabs on law-abiding citizens, thereby creating a surveillance society.

LPR technology, Zoufal said, could impact two areas of privacy: anonymity and reserve. Both have constitutional implications.

Generally speaking LPR technology does not violate any constitutional right of anonymity, Zoufal said, because the whole point of a license plate is to make a vehicle identifiable to authorities in public space. That said, he warned that police could utilize LPR technology in ways that could run afoul of the Constitution. For instance, police could scan the license plates of cars parked outside a location where they know antiwar organizers are meeting. If using LPR technology could reasonably be seen as restricting a person’s First Amendment rights, then police should be cautious about using it in that particular instance, Zoufal advised.

Another privacy area that police should tread carefully around is the idea of reserve. Zoufal described the idea as an individual’s right to keep certain information from being collected and shared without consent. In most cases, LPR does not violate reserve because governments collect license plate information for a specific governmental purpose. Nevertheless, U.S. courts have expressed worry that vast amounts of data collected and stored by computers do pose a threat to privacy because that information lives on forever and can be used it ways never anticipated.

Such fears are leading state lawmakers to create stronger privacy protections at the state level than at the federal level. Zoufal pointed to recent examples where states have put limitations on police use of surveillance technology in public space.

In four states, lawmakers have guaranteed its citizens greater privacy rights than what’s afforded underneath the Fourth Amendment, or protection from unreasonable searches. Washington, Massachusetts, and New York prohibit police from tracking vehicles with GPS without a warrant, while Oregon makes police get a warrant before tracking vehicles through public space with a beeper.

A bill introduced in Maine, however, aims directly at banning the use of LPR technology by the state or municipalities to enforce traffic codes or uniquely identify an individual or a vehicle.

LPR technology is already used in countries like Brazil and the Netherlands to identify and ticket speeding motorists, says Wolfgang Ritter, director of sales and marketing for International Security Systems, a video analytics provider.

There’s also increasing concerns that large data brokers, like ChoicePoint, could buy LPR data from states for private use. As LPR technology proliferates and more license plates are recorded, this could allow data brokers and their customers to recreate the travel histories of individuals. As Zoufal told Security Management, it isn’t ridiculous to think of spouses buying LPR data to double check that their partners went where they said they were going a few Thursdays ago.

But law enforcement officials at the conference said even cash-strapped police departments would think twice about selling LPR data to a data broker.

Eileen Langer-Smith, a program specialist at the New York Department of Criminal Justice Services, said point blank that her department would not sell LPR information to a private company.

Dale Stockton, editor of Law Officer Magazine and a 32-year law enforcement veteran, said police departments need to be careful with whom they partner with: One mistake could jeopardize the public’s tolerance for LPR technology.

“We don’t want to do anything to screw it up,” he said.

Zoufal, however, says even if police don’t sell LPR data, it could be hard to restrict who can access it. All a private company or a private individual would have to do is file a Freedom of Information Act request for the data. And if the data doesn’t compromise a criminal investigation, he said, governments will be hard pressed arguing why it shouldn’t be publicly available information.

After all, they already argue license plate information is a matter of public record.

♦ Photo by woody1778a/Flickr


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