License Plate Readers and Privacy

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The Town of North Hempstead will soon have another sign of the times with the implementation of auto­mated License Plate Recognition (LPR) technology. The system is sold to the public as a way to lower labor costs with a payback within 10 years.

The truth is that these systems are not new and do not come without significant legal scrutiny as well as ongoing system upgrade and maintenance costs. Laws are being enacted across the country to either restrict, or, in some cases, ban LRP use and control of your Personally Identifiable Information (PII).

License Plate Data is considered Private Identifiable Information because it ties to the Department of Motor Vehicle Database, which has, among many other things, your social security number, date of birth, eye color, height, address, etc.

License Plate Recognition systems use a variety of software, databases and hardware solutions to gather data. High-tech reader cameras may be mounted on cars but can now just as easily be handheld using an iPad or cell phone.

A license plate, once scanned, is run against a Transaction Information Management Enforcement system’s “hot list” in order to identify a “hit,” such as registration expiration, criminal activity or scofflaw issues as simple as an unpaid parking ticket or expired meter time.

LPR systems not only run background checks, they “geo-tag” location, date and time and then load the data to a master database. It is this geo-tagging that sets off the alarms for privacy advocates, as these databases hold a clear picture of your movement. For many people, the ability to track activity such as when you go to the doctor’s office, how often and when you use the train station, attend a clinic or civic meeting are real privacy concerns when coupled with who has access to the data.

Today license plates are not only scanned, tracked and stored by government agencies such as law enforcement, but now private companies (both foreign and domestic) are in the lucrative business of reading and storing your license plate and other PII data. In some states, private companies have been banned from collecting license plate data, allowing only professional Law Enforcement Officers to control LRP technology (the database and scanners).

The American Civil Liberty Union is closely monitoring and challenging many aspects of LRP systems as it pertains to the first and fourth amendments. The ACLU specifically is seeking to ensure full disclosure is being published to the public with Macro Data Dashboard views of
the data such as the total number of plates scanned, ticketed, arrests and more.

Who is gathering and storing information about us is something everyone should pay close attention to because the technology is only getting faster, cheaper and easier to capture and may soon intrude on your privacy, or someday your freedom.

—Chuck Idol

 

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