In an attempt to whitewash and silence privacy concerns regarding the increasing number of License Plate Readers (LPR), the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) published a report titled “Privacy impact assessment report for the utilization of License Plate Readers.” The paper calls for regulatory policies regarding citizen privacy while outlining the unlimited ways plate scanners can be used to violate civil liberties and manage the watch lists.
The name license plate reader alone is quite misleading as these units do not simply read plates, but rather match plates to lists obtained by various unnamed agencies. Elsag, the designer, maker and beneficiary of Department of Homeland Security grants, highlight the ability to recognize vehicle location patterns, develop watch lists, produce additional visual clues, utilize several watch lists simultaneously, complete Homeland Security initiatives and place vehicle locations on mapping software using an integrated gps engine.
List creation and cross checking is undoubtedly the primary objective of the LPR. As mentioned on page 26, it says, “Managing hot lists is a key element to the success of a LPR system.” On the surface, the LPR is a highly effective tool designed to locate vehicles for a number of legitimate law enforcement duties, such as: identify vehicles with expired tags, amber alert matches, registered sex offenders in a school zone and even stolen cars. However the accuracy of these lists are highly suspect considering the police officers, to no fault of their own, have no information why a particular vehicle was flagged. On page 46 it states, “Nevertheless, many hot lists are compiled or administered by entities other than the law enforcement agency utilizing the LPR system. This means that law enforcement agencies frequently do not have supporting documentation regarding why a particular license plate number is on a particular hotlist.” This attitude will result in a heightened state of paranoia within police forces as it will be necessary for the safety of the officers to approach each car as if they are dealing with potential terrorists. Unfortunately, this will further an already diminishing trust between citizens and law enforcement. Additionally, the paper suggests LPR users limit the number of lists selected for cross referencing. Failure to do so will result in an extraordinary number of hits.
Limiting the number of hot lists uploaded to a LPR system is recommended to guard against the system “crying wolf.” If law enforcement officers are bombarded by an alert at every third license plate that passes the LPR camera due to the inclusion of too many hot lists, a danger exists that officers may turn off the system or otherwise ignore alerts during their shifts. Only including hot lists that further the law enforcement agency’s goals is one way to guard against this danger. (pg. 25-26)
If the system is “crying wolf” every third plate, this indicates an alarming number of average, law abiding citizens have been placed on a watch lists. As more LPRs are rolled out, that number will increase.
What is Collected?
Every aspect of driving is subject to data collection. While the paper ignorantly claims on page 13, “Individuals are already compelled to disclose a great deal of information to their government.” Not really. The author has mistaken our society’s willingness to spew every detail of our life to friends and family on facebook with being scanned and identified for no reason other than being out in public. As stated on page 12 and 13, the following information is read and stored for an undetermined amount of time:
1. Optical Character Recognition (OCR) of license plate numbers;
2. Digital images of license plates as well as the vehicle’s make and model;
3. Digital image of the vehicle’s driver and passengers;
4. Images of distinguishing features (e.g., bumper stickers, damage);
5. State of registration;
6. Camera identification (mobile cameras may capture officer identification and vehicle/unit number);
7. GPS coordinates or other location information
8. Date and time of observation.
As personally identifying as that information is, it is still just the surface. For example, on page 2 of the assessment, it addresses the various privacy risks associated with using LPRs:
Recording driving habits could implicate First Amendment concerns. Specifically, LPR systems have the ability to record vehicles attendance at locations or events that, although lawful and public, may be considered private. For example mobile LPR units could read and collect license plate numbers of vehicles parked at addiction counseling meetings, doctor’s offices, health clinics, or even staging areas for political protests.” And that tactic opens the door to tracking specific individuals. (pg. 2)
It seems like a risk they are willing to take.
On page 9 of the A-2 appendix, the incredible nature of the entire system is highlighted. In an unprecedented level of surveillance, the paper proudly declares, “LPRs have also been used to record the license plate numbers of vehicles or parked cars at or near several locations, including but not limited to certain businesses, bars and night clubs, car dealerships, gun shows and schools."
Additionally, if police are required to supervise mass evacuations, LPRs can be utilized to ensure evacuation. Again on page 9 of the A-2 appendix, “In instances of mass evacuations, it has been proposed that LPRs could be used to track not only how many vehicles have left an area but also as a means of tracking who has evacuated in an attempt to respond to calls asking about the welfare or evacuation status of a relative.” It is extremely difficult to envision a scenario so horrific that emergency officials would have the time to answer calls regarding the wellbeing of their loved ones during or immediately after mass evacuations.
The majority of data collected is not that of criminal content, but of lawful gatherings and legal practices. Outside several functions, there is no reasonable justification for the data collection practices currently in-place. The policy should then be focused on maintaining and protecting citizen's rights.