Private citizens don’t like police scanning their license plate as if it were public media. It’s currently happening in a suburb of Sacramento, Woodland. The controversy is between high-technology used to quickly locate stolen vehicles and the rights of private citizens who have not committed any violations not to have their license plate photographed unless the police have a good reason to “invade their privacy.” On the other hand, the police need the high-tech tool to keep ahead of criminals because of the high rate of car thefts.
Consumers across the country are worried that information from license plate scanners are shared with their insurance companies. See, License plates scanned at border, data shared with car insurance Nevada ACLU seeks police license plate scan data. And elsewhere in the USA, privacy is an issue as a “treasure trove” of data can be gleaned from license plate data. See, ACLU Questions Privacy of License Plate Scanners – Slashdot KC police hold a treasure trove of license plate data – KansasCity.com.
The new tool is a mobile license-plate reader used by Woodland’s police force since early November 2012. The question is whether the technology tool constitutes public media that violates the rights of private citizens who have no reason to have their license plates photographed. See the November 28, 2012 Sacramento Bee news article by Darrell Smith, “Police license-plate scanners raise privacy concerns.”
Does this media tool, a high-tech camera/scanner used for license plate photography violate the rights of the average citizen who has not committed any crimes? For example, when a Woodland patrol car has the system, cameras are used just within the field of vision to scan the license plates and then match the images against national crime databases. The goal is to alert the police to someone who is wanted for a crime or alert law enforcement that the car is stolen. The reason for the high-tech camera that also matches license plate numbers with national criminal databases is to arrest people who are driven stolen vehicles.
The question remains whether it’s a crime-fighting tool or whether it’s one more cyber-snoop nation gadget invading the privacy of the average citizen? It’s expensive. It took $18,000 in grants and another $3,000 from retailer Target Corporation to pay for the tool. And Target donated to other local law enforcement efforts, according to the Sacramento Bee article. Something has to be done about the car theft problem in Sacramento and its suburbs. Property crime is out of control.
If you look at the property crime statistics, car thefts are higher this year. You can check the statistics for October 2012, where you’ll see that 149 cars were reported stolen within the Woodland city limits, the numbers rising from 96 reports in the same period in 2011. Figures just for October 2012 show that 20 cars were reported stolen, compared with seven in October 2011, and those figures are just for Woodland, not including the rest of Sacramento and its suburbs.
The high-tech scanner and database searching tool also is being used in the Bay area by several agencies. Livermore firm Vigilant Solutions designed the system. It has been used by the Marin County Sheriff’s Department and, for the past four months, the Novato Police Department. More grants are being offered for various police departments to use the high-tech tool. For example, in Sparks, Nevada, the police there just received grants totaling more than $61,000 to pay for high technology, according to the Sacramento Bee article. The system will be shared with Reno and Washoe County. What the tool does is collect information. It keeps on scanning.
With a goal of finding stolen vehicles, the idea is to recover the cars or other vehicles and return them to their owners. The license plate tool also led to the arrest of people suspected of drug-related crimes as well as stolen vehicle charges. The question is whether the technology will be worth its high cost.
License plate recognition
As an average citizen, do you feel that license-plate recognition is dangerous because of human error, improper oversight, or fouled-up data controls? Do you fear the data collected will be used to harass innocent people and invade privacy? Or do you feel it’s just going to catch the criminals quicker? The technology is famous for its high speed and great range, but people still worry about how the data collected will be used? Everyone who drives by the scanner goes into the database.
Will the data become public media? Will any variety of databases at sometime in the future publish the information found online? People worry about privacy because the tool records information about each person who drives by doing what they always do such as driving to work or school or stay-at-home moms car pooling kids to their extra-curricular lessons, sports, or school.
When a police department holds onto the data, it’s saved in a supposedly ‘secure’ server for two weeks. Then, the data is purged. But can it be retrieved from a computer’s hidden cache? That’s what people wonder about when it comes to privacy. In whose hands does the data on each license plate remain?
No personally identifiable information is contained in license-plate capture
The police say your social security number and your medical records aren’t captured. But on the other side of the coin, the ACLU is worried that any type of public records by law enforcement needs to be watched and questioned. The question is how widespread is the use of license-plate recognition nationally or even globally? Who’s watching those who use the data?
People worry that information is being collected without justification. The question the media and average consumers would like answered is how long the data is kept, what happens when it’s purged, where does the information go, is it hidden in computer caches, is it shared with other agencies, and who is protecting privacy?
The ultimate question is whether people who are not criminals are respected as far as privacy? Just when does public information become private–and private information become public and high-tech in national databases? Also what happens when data such as license plate numbers and criminal records are shared first with unknown agencies and then purged from the original scanning tools and systems? One more question to be answered by those who watch the watchers who watch the media.
Citizens wonder whether their license plate number once scanned will be linked to crimes other than stolen vehicles such as warrants for unpaid traffic fines by those who are unemployed and can’t pay, child support, proof of insurance, or an expired visa.
Citizens worry about being stopped by the police on their way to work or school just to inspect their car because someone gets a type of ‘clue’ from their license plate of something that happened in far the past, perhaps a tax error. The fear is it will lead to their car being towed, perhaps getting beaten up for resisting and spending time in jail.
All because the license plate sent a signal, perhaps an error, and the person never committed any crimes. These are real worries people have when every license plate is scanned as it drives by. Then on the other side, police do need a faster way to track down stolen property such as vehicles. Sacramento also has a problem in stolen car covers, and nobody is looking for those. Within two days of a car cover going up on the car, it’s stolen in many local areas. Perhaps security cameras on homes can help there.
Uncovering License Plate Scanners: The Next Big Thing.
License Plate Scanners | American Civil Liberties Union.
Privacy Questions Accompany Automated License Plate. ScannersACLU files suit over info on license plate readers.
ACLU investigates law enforcement use of license plate scanners.
Utah law enforcement scanning license plates – Salt Lake Tribune.
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