NYPD license plate readers (Photo by lucky_dog)

A foundation connected to Motorola, a license plate reader (LPR) manufacturer, has published a report showing police expect to become more reliant on the technology.

The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) conducted a survey and found “71 percent of responding agencies already have LPRs.”

“Typically, an agency has only a few vehicles equipped with the devices, and they are used for certain limited purposes, such as finding stolen cars or vehicles that have multiple parking violations and can be booted or towed,” the report indicated.

PERF conducted a study that demonstrated the benefit of using LPRs.

…[W]hen LPRs were used, police were able to get over eight times as many checks, over four times as many hits, and about twice as many arrests and vehicle recoveries as when they were not using the LPR devices. The number of hits, arrests and recoveries were not particularly high, which is the result of a number of different factors, including the volume of crime. I also think the results show the difficulty of catching auto thieves in the act. By the time many cars are reported stolen, the thieves have already abandoned them, which poses a challenge…

PERF’s survey found 85 percent of agencies plan to “acquire or increase their use of LPRs during the next five years.”

There is not anything inherently wrong with using technology to enhance the ability of police to enforce the law. However, there is a problem when the technology can map movements of people, particularly individuals who have committed no crimes. If police are using technology to engage in warrantless tracking and retaining that data indefinitely, the use of LPRs becomes alarming.

Kade Crockford for the ACLU wrote:

Automatic license plate readers don’t pose much of a threat to our privacy if there aren’t very many of them. Like surveillance cameras, they really only become a problem when the data they collect are situated in a broader context of pervasive monitoring. One data point showing that your car drove past a stationary license plate reader on one highway doesn’t tell the government very much. But the data points begin to pile up when the surveillance cameras and license plate readers are on every street corner and police cruiser. And absent commonsense limits, that means police and prosecutors (and anyone else who gets at the database) can map your movements with the click of a button.

According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, “Mobile LPR cameras may collect the license plate numbers of vehicles parked at locations that, even though public, might be considered sensitive, such as doctor’ offices, clinics, churches, and addiction counseling meetings, among others.”

At any point, if the police wanted, they could—whether they had a warrant or not—take collected data and begin to monitor or spy on an individual. The person would not have had to necessarily commit a crime. Location data would show a pattern of life of a person, enough that the police would be able to predict where that person might be going each day.

Technology that has the capability of intruding on citizens’ lives should not be utilized without approval from citizens. The report noted, “80 percent of our survey respondents told us they expect to increase the practice of placing GPS devices on crime suspects’ vehicles.” The US Supreme Court is hearing a case on “whether GPS tracking of cars violates the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.” PERF added, “We don’t know whether this is one technology that will be restricted by the courts.”

Courts are extremely reluctant to constrain the ability of law enforcement to have the flexibility to fight crime however they may please. Even if courts find a police practice violates civil liberties, the court may find some technicality to excuse it. Or, they may fall back on the notion that security and liberty must be balanced and the violation of privacy is part of ensuring safety.

In July of last year, the ACLU submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for records on how state and local law enforcement agencies are deploying LPRs. Months later, in September, the ACLU sued the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) after federal agencies did not release records requested in July.

The ACLU has yet to get the records it deserves. The secrecy is reprehensible and, given this survey showing how police intend to rely on the technology more and more in the coming years, citizens should know how police are using LPRs and to what extent LPRs pose threats to privacy.