License plate readers quietly becoming prevalent law enforcement technology

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A recent survey (.pdf) by the Police Executive Research Forum reveals that license plate readers will soon be a pervasive monitoring technology among law enforcement agencies, according to a blog post from the American Civil Liberties Union. Seventy-one percent of responding agencies already have LPRs and 85 percent plan to acquire or increase their use of LPRs during the next five years.

The benefits of LPR technology are undeniable, says the ACLU, quoting a police officer in the PERF survey who said that when LPRs were used police were able to get over eight times as many checks, more than four times as many hits, and about twice as many arrests and vehicle recoveries as when they were not using the LPR devices. Clearly, the privacy rights group concludes, the technology is here to stay.

"There doesn't seem to be much hope that we could roll back the expansion of the technology itself," wrote Kade Crockford, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts Technology for Liberty Project, in the blog. "But thankfully we can take simple steps to limit the privacy harms."

Crockford said ACLU affiliates nationwide, including in Massachusetts, are working with state legislators to pass statutes to protect the privacy of citizens from unnecessarily broad police deployments of LPRs. She said Maine and New Hampshire have already passing laws to limit the use of LPRs with more to follow in 2013.

"Automatic license plate readers don't pose much of a threat to our privacy if there aren't very many of them," she wrote. "Like surveillance cameras, they really only become a problem when the data they collect are situated in a broader context of pervasive monitoring." 

Given the central functions that LPRs perform, law enforcement agencies don't need to store captured plate information for long periods of time, which enables mass, retroactive, warrantless surveillance, according to Crockford. In fact, police don't need to retain any captured plate data at all in order to catch people driving stolen cars or with outstanding warrants, she said.

For more:
- read the ACLU blog post
- read the PERF report (.pdf)

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