Monday, November 22, 2010

License Plate Readers: Keeping Track of Your Travels.

The Star Tribune reported that law enforcement agencies such as Bloomington, St. Paul, and others have purchased license plate readers.  I was struck by two points made in the story, "Camera systems can be tweaked to meet the individual needs of departments."  The other point being that police have heard few comments that they are acting like "Big Brother".

The reason why law enforcement agencies have not heard concerns about the license plate reader is because hardly anybody knows about it.  Secondly, to where the law enforcement agency can decide what "individual needs" are raises privacy and civil liberty concerns.

These cameras can be mounted on police cars or on poles.  They can collect thousands of license plate data on cars and individuals in a 8 hour period.  A law enforcement agency may focus only on stolen cars and missing persons when the data is compared with those lists.  Others may focus on parking meter violations, bench warrants, suspicious persons, cars without insurance, and other types of doings that interest law enforcement.

The data collected by the readers can be stored, linked for other applications and uses, or compared to information in other databases.  What vehicles are in use, where it has been, and where it is going are some of the inferences that can be made from the data collected.  The license plate can tell where an individual could be or where the person has been based on who the plate is registered to.  Depending on the vendor and the product a database can store images, plate #, date, time, and gps data.

Issues of inaccuracy, mission creep, are among the many issues with the license plate reader.  Law enforcement entities creating and retaining a license plate database of our comings and goings have serious privacy and civil liberty implications for Minnesotans.

Other states have taken notice to this technology and have done guidelines and legislation to address the citizen's concerns.  I think we need to do so as well.


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