License Plate Readers Spark Privacy Concerns

fromVPR

It is increasingly likely that someone or something has recently taken a picture of your car's license plate. License plate readers are used in almost every state. They allow police to quickly spot everything from expired registrations to car owners who may be wanted for more serious offenses.

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Chances are that your car's license plate has been photographed recently and downloaded into a data bank. The leading vendor of automated license plate readers says they're now used in nearly every state. Police say they fight crime, but there are privacy concerns about the new technology, as Charlotte Alright reports from Vermont Public Radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR STARTING)

CHARLOTTE ALBRIGHT, BYLINE: On a breezy, sunny day in Hartford, Vermont, police officer Christopher O'Keeffe climbs into his cruiser and boots up a laptop mounted near the dashboard. It's connected to two small black cameras on the hood of the car.

CHRISTOPHER O'KEEFFE: It takes a shot of the plate, which we can see here, and then if there is an alarm, if it is a confirmed hit, and there's something going on with the car, it'll show up in this bottom box here in the right hand corner.

ALBRIGHT: By confirmed hit, O'Keeffe means the license plate number shows up on a hotlist of suspected scofflaws - anything from bank robbery to a lapsed registration. About 10 minutes into his shift, there's a tell-tale beep, and the computer voice explains it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Suspended or revoked registration.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

O'KEEFFE: So that's what a hit sounds like. Just going to confirm it through dispatch.

ALBRIGHT: But the computer is wrong. The dispatcher at the department tells O'Keeffe that the car's registration is in fact valid.

O'KEEFFE: Ten-four, thank you. And that's why you always confirm it.

ALBRIGHT: But even though he doesn't get pulled over, this law-abiding vehicle owner is now in a database. The time and place of the sighting is also on record. O'Keeffe's department has not tracked the number of arrests triggered by the device or measured its accuracy over time. A leading researcher says there's no current data about how many crimes have been solved with the help of the readers, and many local agencies don't report their results.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

ALBRIGHT: A few minutes later, as a different car passes, another alarm goes off. This time the plate reader correctly identifies the registration as invalid. Because the dispatcher names a male owner and the driver is female, O'Keeffe chooses, again, not to pull the car over. The reader keeps beeping, photographing one plate every few seconds.

O'KEEFFE: All this allows us to do is to do our jobs in a much faster rate, a higher rate.

ALBRIGHT: But some think the plate readers are putting law enforcement in overdrive. Neil Fulton, town manager of neighboring Norwich, has turned down a free license plate reader offered by the Department of Homeland Security.

NEIL FULTON: This is like fishing with a net, where you not only catch maybe the tuna that you want, but you catch an awful lot of fish you don't want. And that was a concern to me.

ALBRIGHT: The American Civil Liberties Union shares that concern. Some communities and states are restricting or even banning license plate readers. Vermont Law School Professor Cheryl Hanna says the technology is outpacing efforts to set policy about its use.

CHERYL HANNA: Who would have access to it, under what circumstances can the police data mine for things, are all really unanswered questions at this point because there's been very little guidance as to exactly what ought to happen here, and I think as districts start to implement these programs they're going to be testing what the boundaries of legality are.

ALBRIGHT: Hanna says courts at all levels are likely to aim for a balance between modern law enforcement and Big Brother-type surveillance, and to insist that departments spell out policies for the use of the information cameras collect.

For NPR News, I'm Charlotte Albright.

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