License Plate Readers: Setting the Record Straight (Industry Perspective)

Don’t let privacy zealots put license plate readers into the Edward Snowden surveillance discussion — that is a red herring.

by Tom Joyce / July 28, 2016
A patrol car equipped with a roof-mounted camera that constantly photographs passing license plates. Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times/MCT

In most aspects of society, technology has been seen as a means of doing things better. From health care to transportation to financial services, new technologies have made our ability to work, live and play safer, easier and more cost efficient.

However, too many of our government leaders look to restrain advanced technologies to perform the most critical of tasks — maintain our safety and security. For the past several years, more than 30 states have introduced legislation that would curtail or even prohibit law enforcement from using technology that helps to solve crimes and protect citizens: license plate reader (LPR) cameras and data.

From the threats of a surveillance state to privacy breaches, LPR is too often depicted in a harsh and wrong light — mostly thanks to a multi-million-dollar campaign by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation that I, as a former lieutenant detective commander of the New York City Police Department, see as filled with misinformation.

As a former NYPD official, LPR would have been required protocol for my team. No questions asked. It changes your investigative mind. Law enforcement agencies across the country that have adopted LPR solutions are more efficient and effective. They more efficiently enforce warrants, identify stolen vehicles and help detectives solve major crimes. In addition, license plate detections of vehicles known to be associated with threatening individuals keeps officers safe by providing awareness of their surroundings.

LPR technology has helped to apprehend murderers, serial killers, drug traffickers and child abductors.

All the while, LPR data contains no personally identifiable information — just a photograph of an anonymous rectangle with alphanumeric characters on it — a license plate.  Every state mandates by law that license plates be mounted on vehicles and visible for identification purposes.

Don’t let the privacy zealots put LPR into the Edward Snowden surveillance discussion — that is a red herring.

LPR cameras — stationary or mobile — are just like any modern smartphone camera. They take photographs of license plates and stamp the pictures with the date, time and location coordinates of where they were taken. 

LPR data generated by a law enforcement agency (LEA) is owned by that specific agency. It is up to each LEA to determine whether it wants to share its LPR data with other LEAs. In addition, LEAs can fully track and audit access to LPR data, and set and manage a wide range of data access controls. The LPR records are stored in a database that meets the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) compliance, and can only be searched by authorized personnel.

The only way to link personally identifiable information — like a name, address or face — to an anonymous LPR data record is to obtain access to a state’s Department of Motor Vehicle database.  That access is currently restricted by the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act — a strong federal law that carries stiff fines and federal prison penalties for any violation.

Thanks to this legislation, the connection of an LPR data record to personal data from DMV records for malicious or abusive reasons is strictly prohibited. 

Privacy concerns often dominate discussions about LPR, while the truth about how LPR data is often ignored. It is time to set the record straight.

While some lawmakers debate and consider an outright ban of some uses of LPR, they should learn from states that have settled this debate. North Carolina and Maryland, for instance, have taken a good hard look at the issue, examined the facts and decided on a measured approach that embraces LPR technology. Common sense tells me that the pros of this technology far outweigh the cons, and a ban on LPR simply makes no sense at all. 

If I were a victim of a crime, I’d certainly hope law enforcement would have access to all possible crime-solving technologies. I’m sure legislators would expect the same for themselves.

Let’s hope that our national and state federal, state and local law enforcement leaders get the message that LPR is a critical tool to making our streets safer. Communities deserve to have their law enforcement agencies equipped with the best technologies to prevent and solve crime.  

Tom Joyce, a former lieutenant commander of the New York Police Department Cold Case Squad, is the vice president of product development at Vigilant Solutions Inc., a provider of technology solutions for law enforcement.

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