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Are license-plate readers in our future?

The PBS website has an article about automatic license-plate reading devices, a new technology being offered to police departments. The vehicle-mounted device scans the tag numbers on passing vehicles, records the GPS location and time, and runs a check against a database of Amber Alerts, cars reported stolen, etc. — all fast enough that the police can pull over the vehicle if they get a “match” to the database.

This sounds like a new twist on the traffic camera technology that Oak Ridge and other cities are using now, and I have a hunch we’ll be hearing more about it in the next few years. Apparently not many cities are using “ALPR” now, but it seems to be an effective police tool. The article says that in the first 6 months of using this system, police in Long Beach, California, made 50 arrests, “identified nearly 1,000 stolen or lost license plates and seized 275 stolen vehicles.”

As expected, there are critics. The Washington ACLU calls ALPR a threat to privacy because the system can “monitor and track the movements of ALL vehicles, including those registered to people who are not suspected of any crime.” They say, “Without restrictions, law enforcement agencies can and do store the data gathered by the license plate readers forever, allowing them to monitor where you have traveled and when you traveled there over an extended period of time.” I figure that when my car is in a public place, it has no privacy (I can’t prevent it from being photographed, whether by humans or by automated cameras), but the idea of police keeping detailed long-term electronic records of my car’s movements is really creepy. I’d feel better about the idea of ALPR if the system automatically purged old data after a short time (30 minutes or an hour, for example), so this doesn’t turn into a way for police to keep detailed records on the movements of citizens.

I have a hunch that license-plate readers are in our future, but I sure hope that we discuss and resolve the privacy issues before the technology is installed…


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