Privacy Issues associated with License Plate Trackers

Technology has created fantastic opportunities, high levels of convenience and increased efficiency. For law enforcement, it has provided all three as the ability to collect, track and store data is far easier than it has been in previous times. Unfortunately, however, with every benefit often comes some drawbacks.

Currently, many police departments across the United States are using license plate tracking as a way to solve crimes or do comparison checks. While the benefits to police seem obvious, as it often is with technology, privacy is one of the casualties.

What are license plate trackers?

License plate trackers are just what the name implies, these devices scan and store information captured on license plates as drivers travel through a designated area. Police capture the information on a license plate and it goes into a database. Essentially it is a location tracker, meaning authorities know where your car was at a given time and place.

According to recent reports, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) identified about 600 police departments across the United States, in 38 states and Washington, D.C., that engage in this practice.

Trackers create privacy issues

The general public would likely support and agree that police should have the tools available for them to track down the bad guys, but what they might have a problem with is if these automated tools impose on their own rights.

Some privacy issues recently identified by the ACLU include:

• Police are collecting data on everyone, not just those suspected of crimes. That means potentially millions of innocent drivers are having their data collected and stored.

• It “morphs into a powerful tracking tool” and people should be worried, said the ACLU. The reason being the data accumulated by license plate tracking devices can be used indefinitely as there are no legal standards preventing police from doing so.

• There is no uniformity or set regulations on how long collected data is kept. Some police departments only keep it briefly to review, even as little as a few hours, but others are storing it far longer — years and maybe even indefinitely.

Other potential issues associated with this collection are hacking. Databases that amass what can be perceived as valuable data might attract hackers who can find a way to exploit the information for financial gain. Especially if the databases are eventually linked and/or cross-referenced to other official databases in government.

Another problem is that private companies are also using license plate readers and sharing this information, according to a recent CNN report. This has led to concerns collected data may be used inappropriately, as NBC notes.

Privacy advocates concerned

No one disputes that police need to do their job, but many privacy advocates are concerned at where this and similar practices could lead. Not to mention it further moves society from one of “innocent until proven guilty” in a court of law to the presumption everyone is guilty unless the data tells us otherwise.

 “Although you can’t tell immediately that someone is committing a crime, some of those people may well be doing something wrong, goes the argument. But in our society, the government doesn’t watch all of us all the time just in case we commit a crime,” the ACLU said in its blog post.

The ACLU suggests regulation be put into place to govern these practices. Compromises could be that storage of data is limited to specific time periods and then records are required to be purged.

While this solution might mitigate the problem to some extent, the underlying problem still remains. Technology moves at lightning speed and laws cannot effectively keep up. In this day and age, people can generally assume if they are out in public, they have no privacy. The bigger question is does society want the “cool” and efficient technology or do they want privacy?

Based on market trends it seems the former is winning out.