Are License-Plate Readers Valuable Tools or Invasion of Privacy?

License Plate Readers: A Powerful Law Enforcement Tool or Invasion of Privacy?

License Plate Reader
A license plate reader system camera, which works night and day. A powerful tool for law enforcement – or another way to keep track of your movements? Image used with permission by copyright holder

So, you thought that sneaking out for a scoop of Chocolate Walnut Ice cream from Baskin Robbins wouldn’t leave a trace? Think again! Police might be keeping tabs on your innocent cravings and storing the data for future use. How? Through the use of automated license plate readers.

According to a recent report by the ACLU, the use of these location tracking devices is more concerning than initially expected, especially when it comes to privacy issues. After analyzing thousands of pages of documents from police departments all over the United States, the ACLU found evidence suggesting that license plate readers are being used for mass surveillance.

But how do these readers work? License Plate Recognition systems, or LPRs, utilize infrared-equipped video cameras and optical character recognition software to read vehicle license plates. The captured data is then wirelessly transmitted to the police department’s main computer, where it is checked against an installed database for stolen vehicles or individuals with warrants. Some systems even use real-time data stored in the patrol car’s computer.

These LPRs are always scanning plates whenever the police car is in operation, using invisible infrared light to “see” license plates even at night. They can read plates that are dirty or at odd angles. In fact, a single patrol car equipped with an LPR system can read thousands of license plates in a day.

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It’s important to note that these cameras don’t just read plates in front of the police car. They can capture any plate that comes into view around the patrol car, regardless of whether the vehicle is moving, parked, or in a driveway visible from the street. When a suspect plate is detected, the officers are immediately notified on a computer screen and with an audible signal. The system mostly works autonomously, allowing the officers to focus on other tasks.

Now, here’s the issue highlighted by the ACLU report: the majority of the data collected by license plate readers is about innocent people who haven’t committed any crimes. For example, in Rhinebeck, NY, out of 99,771 plate reads stored from January to March 2102, only 0.01% were related to actual crimes. Similar low hit rates were observed in other cities as well.

However, what’s more troubling is how long law enforcement agencies retain this data. While some jurisdictions delete the data after 48 hours, others, like Yonkers, NY, hold on to it indefinitely. Only two states, Maine and New Hampshire, have policies that prioritize the protection of individuals’ privacy.

The growing trend of law enforcement relying on technology to catch criminals raises concerns about the fate of this collected data. Some police patrol cars are equipped with multiple digital video cameras, including the LPR system’s cameras, which can read up to 8,000 license plates a day. This data can be helpful in recovering stolen vehicles or locating missing persons, but it’s crucial to address how long it is stored and who has access to it.

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With no standardized guidelines across the nation, the potential uses of this data become a subject of speculation. The ACLU suggests that it could be used to track individuals’ religious activities, medical appointments, or even monitor their friends’ movements, regardless of their involvement in any criminal activities.

So, are license plate readers effective crime-fighting tools or a potential avenue for abuse? It’s a question worth pondering the next time you find yourself craving cookies and cream.

Photo Source: Dallas News

What’s your take on license plate readers? Let us know in the comments!

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