License plate readers: Where are the guidelines?

Recently publicized privacy concerns over the rise in police use of license plate readers (LPR) is just another symptom of a broader problem the government has when it comes to establishing policy guidelines for new applications of technology. As with the commercial markets, usage seems to come first, while policy on appropriate use lags behind. And unlike commercial entities that may be using data about you to try to sell you something, government motivations for misuse of data can be more ominous.

As with other emerging technologies, LPR is a powerful law enforcement tool. The systems use OCR to determine the tag number and compare it to a national list of tags associated with stolen vehicles, vehicles associated with warrants, active investigations, and Amber Alert-related vehicles.

Maury Mitchell, director of the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center, calls LPR "The ultimate game changing technology in law enforcement." The state has already begun deploying cruiser-mounted LPR cameras, but it is still working on its own policy for proper management and use of the technology and associated data it gathers. LPRs record such data as the vehicle tag number, where the plate was photographed and the date and time. The system automatically runs every license plate is it reads and returns the results almost instantaneously. "You ride down the road, a stolen car drives by and you have them right away. This catches criminals so fast that it will make your head spin," Mitchell says.

But right now there are no national policy guidelines regarding the use of LPR and the data it generates. LPR records data on the movements of vehicles belonging to both ordinary citizens and criminals, and the data may be stored forever or may expire in 90 days if it's not a "tag of interest," depending on the state.  And the data isn't 100% accurate. For example, the readers don't always accurately read every tag number and don't determine the state of issue. So in some cases a vehicle could be improperly matched up with a tag reported as stolen. The officer then needs to validate the information. "In most cases, if not all cases, an officer will not pull over a vehicle solely based on an LPR hit without further validation," Mitchell says.

But the bigger issue is privacy safeguards.

"The problem here is that no one has set up guidelines," Mitchell says. So he went to Washington D.C. and petitioned Congress and the Department of Justice to do just that. MItchell wanted a national study on the subject leading to nationwide guidelines on the appropriate use of LPR, "before things get out of hand."

"They didn't go for it," he says. So this October the state's Information Policy Council will take up the matter on its own. Fortunately, Mitchell says, he has found a good template: The European Union.

"We're late to the party. The rest of the world has been doing this for years," he says, and the EU has well established policies designed to let the police catch the bad guys while protecting citizen privacy. "It works well over there," he says.

MItchell isn't worried about the State of Alabama getting into trouble with LPR and privacy concerns. "I'm a strong advocate of having a privacy policy. If I find an officer has violated our policy I'll nail him to the wall [because] he'll ruin the opportunity for good officers to protect the public," he says. But Mitchell worries that national policy will only catch up after a major abuse of the technology has been uncovered. "Someone is going to screw up, and then instead of addressing the mis-use problem with good policy, the politicians will simply get rid of this amazing crime-solving technology," he says.

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