Last month, the governor of Massachusetts approved half a million dollars in grants for 27 police departments to acquire automated license plate readers that mount to the top of squad cars. These readers allow a patrol car to drive through an area and be alerted if a license plate on a flagged list is identified. But the state wants to take the technology a step further by feeding every car’s license plate into a central database. Although this database stores information that directly pertains to police monitoring of an area for illegal activity, such as arrest records, registration and license information, and insurance status, the system would allow the tracking cars of law-abiding citizens as well. Consequently, concerns over privacy have been raised by civil liberty advocates, and in response, the grant money has been put on hold until protocols are defined for handling all the data.
While this situation is left in a holding pattern, it gives us pause to reflect on what all this actually means: as in a number of other recent situations that indicate a growing trend, identification technology is outpacing government policy because disagreement about personal rights abounds in the digital age.
First of all, an automated license plate reader isn’t a new technology. Whether it’s closed-circuit television cameras mounted at toll booths that have been in use for years or these infrared-based devices that can read up to 30 license plates a second, each reader works by using visualization software to read the plate numbers correctly and then processing the image with optical character recognition (OCR) software, which converts the image into data, much in the same way that a flatbed scanner identifies words in a scanned document. But clearly the camera technology has improved through greater image clarity and faster frame rates, such that a license plate of a car travelling at 120 MPH can be detected. Furthermore, government agencies have cooperated through the improved design of license plates to make them easier to read. This has led to the increased use of these mobile readers in police investigations, as the police can canvas a larger area around a crime scene to identify vehicles of suspects. Furthermore, the increased use of these readers is making it harder for wanted criminals to drive undetected on the streets.
But what is new is how the data captured by the readers are being used. Previously, the readers would search for a particular license plate, such as those flagged with warrants, parking tickets or other violations, and ignore the others. However, now mass data storage and wireless communication makes it possible to preserve the large amount of data generated. Additionally, databases can be linked together allowing police to keep tabs on known criminals as well as identify those who are currently breaking the law, such as uninsured drivers. Clearly, the opportunity for abuse exists as well because the database could be used to track anyone who owns a vehicle by using timestamps and location data to plot a trail for every plate detected. While a couple of police departments already have a few of the readers, a state-wide policy for handling and purging the data is necessitated before the system goes into full operation.
Many citizens would agree that it is unsettling for a central database to be accessible by a broad range of government agencies, especially if the data is stored permanently. One example where license plate data could be useful is if the IRS wanted to verify the number of business miles driven that were claimed on a tax return. Or what about a divorce case in which one lawyer demanded access to the locations of a spouse’s vehicle in order to establish infidelity? Intuitively, it seems that collecting this information somehow violates our oft-cited 4th Amendment rights, which secure against warrantless searches, as the ACLU is claiming will occur with this new system. Already, state officials are having to quench privacy concerns and Big Brother fears.
Now, the International Association of Chiefs of Police issued a report in 2009 addressing the privacy issues related to license plate readers. The report indicates that beyond license plate numbers, readers can be used to get information about a vehicle’s make and model, distinguishing features such as damage or bumper stickers, and even images of the driver and passengers. But here’s the thing: according to the report, license plates are not considered to be “personally identifying information,” in other words, data that could be used to trace a person’s identity. To be personally identifiable, the reader would have to detect something like social security numbers or fingerprints (and presumably DNA). The report further identifies IP addresses and phone numbers as personally identifiable, as well as recognizing that combinations of certain data, such as name, date of birth and street address, can be used to trace someone. But the argument goes that without a database associating a license plate to a person’s vehicle registration, the number itself is considered nonpersonal.
On top of that, most states consider driving to be a privilege and not a right. The report also indicates that citizens should expect that in public spaces, there is less expectation of privacy. Combined with the definition of what constitutes personally identifiable information, these points build a strong argument for police departments to utilize license plate readers on the streets. But clearly, it is a fine line between monitoring and the violation of individual privacy. The policies being hashed out right now will ultimately define how the agencies in Massachusetts link license plate data to other information as well as who can access the database.
Ultimately, the readers are just another tool that helps police catch criminals. They will not suddenly turn the state of Massachusetts into the surveillance society of the UK. In light of this technology and issues related to tracking of cell phones, we are living in an age in which our anonymity in society is slowly disappearing with the amount of data that can be collected on the average citizen and linked together. It is a consequence of the digitalization of pretty much everything and it doesn’t appear to be avoidable, regardless of the policies written to protect rights.
In the end, the Massachusetts police aren’t the bad guys — they are trying to use technological innovations to do their jobs better in the face of discouraging crime statistics and budget cuts. But, as the saying goes, if you’re gonna hate, hate the game, not the players.