Government, Law, and Technology

Concerns with license plate cameras

October 2, 2015
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LANSING — Advanced technology can increase efficiency for law enforcement agencies while helping them protect public safety. Sometimes, however, technology may also threaten public safety.

That’s what the American Civil Liberties Union says about the controversial use of automatic license plate scanners.

Automatic license plate readers have high-speed cameras that can photograph every passing license plate, and scanner systems store extensive details about each vehicle. The readers can be placed in many locations, including on patrol cars and bridges.

However, Shelli Weisberg, the legislative director of the ACLU of Michigan, said, “We oppose them, as they currently are without serious restrictions.”

The main reason for the organization’s opposition is the database stores not only the license number but also the time and a vehicle’s location, she said.

“And if that data has been collected day after day and week after week, you can pretty quickly go into that database after hundreds of thousands of hits accumulated by license plate readers, and you can follow where the cars have gone,” Weisberg said.

Because the photographs show details that may include the face of drivers or their actions, people or entities with access to this database can track any person for a week or maybe longer, she said.

“When he went to the store, when he went to work, when he sent his child to school — all these personal daily routines could be obtained by people who have access to the database,” Weisberg said. “What we are concerned about is, as the license plate readers collect so much data, they are able to use that data to surveil people. And we don’t want that to happen.”

Police love them because the process can automatically check tens of thousands of plates in a single hour, said David Roberts, senior program manager for the International Association of Chiefs of Police based in Alexandria, Va.

Law enforcement agencies use license plate readers to check vehicles against “hot lists,” which include stolen vehicles and vehicles used in crimes.

“For example, if there is a child that has been kidnapped and we have vehicle information on that, we can enter that information into the system,” said Ed Wilk, Mackinac County undersheriff.

“And if that vehicle crosses the ‘birds,’ then we should be able to get notified of the vehicle’s whereabouts,” Wilk added, referring to the license plate readers.

License plate readers are used not only by police but also by private companies that make their data available to police with little or no oversight or privacy protections, the ACLU’s Weisberg said.

“And that is a problem. Our concern is that, if you want to use license plate readers, you have to limit how long to keep the data, and you can’t use it for tracking without a warrant. We want there to be some protection on this,” said Weisberg.

Policies on how long police keep the data vary widely. Some departments delete records within days or weeks, some keep them for years, while others have no deletion policy at all.

While the ACLU opposes the unrestricted use of license plate readers, Aaron Westrick, an associate professor at the Criminal Justice School of Lake Superior State University, said the license plate reader is just monitoring what is already public.

“I can understand that people are concerned their rights are violated, given the counter-terrorism world we are living in,” said Westrick. “But I can’t see it as a legal case of that. The license plate technology is just observing the license plates that are already visible in a public place.

“The license plate scanner just enhances what the police already do. It can’t be a legal issue unless the police can’t see the license plates either,” Westrick added. “It does not pick anybody in particular. Literally, it is checking all of them.”

However, Westrick agrees with the ACLU that the data should be protected.

“If anybody uses that data for any illegal activities, he or she is breaking the law. This database must be only accessible to the law enforcement agencies,” Westrick said.

Robert Stephenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, pointed out there is a misperception about what the license plate readers can read when a car passes by.

“The readers can just scan and collect the data of the license plates, the letters and numbers on it,” Stephenson said. “It doesn’t record the face of drivers or any more information.

“There might be some license plate readers that take photographs of the car and its drivers, which record some kind of private information. But the readers used in Michigan only record the license plates.”

Greg Griffin, a sergeant on the Major Case Team of the Grand Rapids Police Department, said police are very conscious of the privacy issue.

“Only a few people can use that technology,” said Griffin, “and also not all the police can have access to the database. Just a few of them.”

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