Use license plate readers to solve crimes, but not to snoop

Illinois has no safeguards to ensure the huge numbers of photos police have stored showing where people have been are used properly.

SHARE Use license plate readers to solve crimes, but not to snoop

A Chicago police car in 2008 with cameras mounted on the roof that to scan license plates. Since 2008, the cameras have become far more pervasive.

Sun-Times file

These days, Big Brother knows where you drive.  

Extensive networks of high-definition cameras mounted along streets and roads and on squad cars continuously snap photos of license plates as cars roll by — as many as 1,800 plates per camera. Private groups install cameras that send images to law enforcement to look for porch pirates and reckless drivers. Sometimes the faces of the drivers and passengers are captured, too. The images are transmitted to a central server, where they may reside indefinitely.

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Don’t get us wrong. The surveillance cameras are an effective tool for checking vehicle registrations, spotting cars whose drivers don’t have insurance, locating stolen cars, tracking vehicles in hit-and-runs and solving other crimes. Anyone who gets a stolen car promptly returned because an automated license plate reader spotted a license plate registered to a car that was reported stolen is grateful for the high-tech help.

But the cameras also keep tabs on countless innocent Americans.

This should make you nervous

Do we really want some police department or elected official or business to know exactly where we have been driving over the past few years? If you care about privacy, this should make you nervous.

The Illinois Legislature ought to find a way to allow the police to use the cameras to fight crime while protecting our personal privacy. As of now, there are no limits in Illinois on how the camera-collected data can be used. Individual police departments may have policies against, say, selling data to insurance companies, but those policies can change without notice. False matches also are a risk.

When an automated license plate reader captures a plate and uses GPS to pinpoint its location and the time a photo was taken, technology compares that plate number with federal, state and other “hot lists” — databases of things such as cars that have been reported stolen or are associated with some other type of crime. The photos also show the make, model and color of vehicles captured in photos.

While Americans drive around, the cameras are snapping away.

In California, the 15 biggest data collecting law enforcement agencies conducted 1.4 billion license plate scans between 2018 and 2019, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has stored hundreds of millions of records about motorists. Chicago has hundreds of license place readers mounted on police cars, poles and mobile booter vehicles. The cameras transmit data to the Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

Suburban police departments also are enlarging their networks of license plate readers. Often, the data the cameras collect is shared among a vast range of government agencies.

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No regulations limit which databases can be compared with numbers collected by cameras, stipulate how long authorities can hold on to the data, spell out who can access the data or require safeguards from hacking. We’ve got a problem with the idea that those in control of the systems can know, with a few key strokes, who goes to church, a bar, a union meeting, a political protest or a therapist.

And drivers can’t opt out of the system because state law, understandably, requires every vehicle on the road to have a visible license plate.

As for police, they have been known to turn off the systems in their cars because the cameras flag so many minor violations that an officer can’t keep up.

In 2015, the Illinois House passed legislation 75-24 to regulate the cameras. But the bill died in the Senate without being brought to a vote. It’s time the Legislature took this issue up again. Much of the legislative work already has been done.  

No one is talking seriously about removing the license plate readers, which can be an excellent crime-fighting tool. But we should all be wary of the unintended consequences.

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