Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to discuss the use of license plate recognition (LPR) technology at an open public forum hosted by the Orinda Town Council. I was hoping to have an LPR debate and that I’d be asked tough questions about the correlation between LPR and personal privacy and government surveillance – all of which are understandable and legitimate. And I was. I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion and hope that I allayed many of the legitimate concerns of the citizens of Orinda.
But what I really wanted was a vibrant LPR debate with members of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who seem all too willing to leverage hyperbolic examples of LPR misuse coupled with hypothetical doomsday scenarios. They often prefer to communicate their misguided notions of LPR via press releases, surrogates or one-sided conversations with media.
In short, sometimes it appears that the ACLU does not want others to hear the real truth about LPR technology and those who both use it and sell it. But, we think it is important and vital that the public understand the privacy controls that are in place and can be leveraged to ensure that LPR is used in a manner that maximizes the benefits of the this critical crime-fighting technology but also eliminates the invasion of personal privacy.
So, let me give a little background.
LPR technology enables law enforcement to use high-speed cameras to take photos of license plates in public places and then log a time and a location. These photos are then saved in a searchable database which can be accessed when police are investigating a crime. For example, if an eyewitness can provide a partial license plate of a car he/she saw in a hit and run or other crime to, officers can check their database to see if there are any vehicles with that partial license plate that match the vehicle description. Detectives would then use other tools and techniques to investigate any possible leads.
LPR databases do not contain the names of the vehicle owners or any other personal information. Leveraging the LPR database, law enforcement has no idea who owns the car or who was driving the car –since they only have a photo of the license plate. A license plate can only be linked to a person by accessing a Department of Motor Vehicle database – which is only allowed under specific permissible purposes outlined by the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA). A violation of the DPPA is a federal crime.
The ACLU and the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) have tried to minimize the benefits of LPR as hypothetical. The EFF’s Jennifer Lynch even discounted the notion that LPR could have shortened the investigation of the infamous Laci Peterson case as a “one-off hypothetical example.”
However, we have thousands of “one-off” real-world examples. LPR data – from minutes old to years old — has enabled police to solve thousands of crimes, from car thefts to child abductions to murder. In the first 30 days of having access to the same system that Orinda is considering, the Sheriff’s Department of Sacramento County located 495 stolen vehicles, 5 carjacked vehicles, and 19 other felony vehicles (45 people were arrested).
Is there the potential for misuse of LPR data? Of course there is, and that is why law enforcement agencies across the country are implementing strict policies and procedures. Our products allow law enforcement to employ advanced access controls and enable for the logging of every time a record is accessed. The focus of legislators should be to reinforce the existing federal law that already protects driver’s privacy, and require agencies to adopt policies that incorporate the type of strict auditing and access control that those in the LPR industry welcome.
The focus should not be the abolishment of LPR or the neutering of the technology by shackling it with the need to purge data after just hours — as the ACLU claims to want.
Banning LPR would eliminate a tool that has taken the most dangerous of felons off our streets. We have seen in several areas across the country – most recently in Maryland – that local LPR laws and policies can protect privacy and civil liberties while preserving the ability of law enforcement investigators to solve crimes, put felons in jail and save lives.
I’d love to have an adult conversation with the ACLU. I truly believe that we can achieve a legislative solution that fulfills all of the privacy needs that the ACLU espouses.
A public LPR debate with the ACLU did not occur as I would have hoped in Orinda. However, I continue to have hope for that opportunity, not for Vigilant Solutions or the ACLU, but for law enforcement and the citizens they protect and serve every day.