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Column: License plate reader laws

Published 10:20 am, Sunday, April 13, 2014
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Connecticut has emerged as a major front in a cynical national campaign to vilify a powerful and effective law enforcement technology. The messages coming out of the campaign may be borderline ridiculous, but the impact of the effort is very serious for Connecticut communities.

The American Civil Liberties Union is engaged in a national effort to limit or outlaw the use of the license-plate readers and data they generate that police around the country have been using for years to solve crimes, recover abductees and protect communities. Drawing on heightened national fears about surveillance, advocates have painted a fantastical picture of a license-plate recognition network that tracks innocent citizens everywhere they go.

Given the dire picture the ACLU creates, it's easy to understand how so many state legislatures have introduced legislation -- helpfully drafted by the ACLU itself -- that seeks to dramatically limit LPR technology. But the picture is a cartoon, and the laws that they are seeking to pass will have real impact on the ability of police to take advantage of technology to do their jobs.

Personal privacy should be guaranteed for all of us. All the reason why a trumped-up campaign that takes advantage of American's worst fears should raise the ire of all of us.

License plates exist to identify cars, and are public by their definition. Anyone can take a photo or write down a plate number on a sheet of paper, including when and where the plate was seen. A license plate does not reveal your home address, your Social Security number, your name, your occupation, etc.

License-plate readers photograph license plates in public with a time and date stamp and save the pictures in a database. The ability to link LPR data with an individual via Department of Motor Vehicle information is guarded by stringent access controls governed by a strict, federal privacy law -- the Driver's Privacy Protection Act. The truth is, license-plate recognition technology is a powerful, well-regulated tool.

License-plate recognition systems simply automate a function that police officers and insurance agents have been performing since license plates were invented more than a hundred years ago. The technology replaces the process of seeing a license plate, writing down the number and comparing it against an existing "hot list" of plates.

The only way to connect any personally identifiable information to your license plate is by inputting a license plate number into a DMV database.

This is where the ACLU tries to scare you. However, the Privacy Act allows only authorized agents to link the plate images to DMV records under a very narrow set of permitted purposes including law enforcement investigations. Anyone who connects a plate to DMV records outside of those purposes is committing a federal crime.

That certainly seems like a powerful privacy protection.

Yet many in Connecticut are pushing for limitations on LPR data retention. The ACLU says 14 days is enough. So what does that mean?

It means that if law enforcement apprehends a suspect for a murder that occurred last week, it would have no ability to search its LPR database for any links to that suspect's vehicle and unsolved murders that match similar circumstances for more than two weeks prior. It means that if a terrorized rape victim doesn't report the crime until three weeks after the fact, law enforcement would have no access to LPR data that could place the offender near the scene of the reported crime.

With more than 70 percent of crimes involving the use of a motor vehicle, the ACLU's 14-day retention limit would have a daily impact on the ability for law enforcement to perform its No. 1 job: keeping the citizens of Connecticut safe.

Personal privacy is an inherent right and breaches of privacy should raise concerns of legislators and citizens, alike. However, LPR is being deployed and governed in a manner that provides both security and privacy.

Don't we have enough legitimate privacy debates that we don't need groups to gin up the emotions of citizens through misinformation?

Brian Shockley is the vice president of marketing of Vigilant Solutions, which creates license-plate recognition systems.