Don’t make privacy a victim of fighting crime

Automated license plate readers can catch suspects, but they also invade people’s personal lives.

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A Chicago Police Department SUV with license plate readers is parked at the District 17 Station at 4650 N. Pulaski Rd. on the Northwest Side, Wednesday morning,

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

As America speeds along the road to pervasive surveillance, it’s important to protect as much individual privacy as possible.

In Thursday’s Chicago Sun-Times, David Struett reported Chicago has installed at least $430,000 worth of automated license plate cameras across the city. Across the country, ALPRs capture scads of passing license plate numbers, along with the location, date, and time and photos of the vehicles. Sometimes they also snap a photo of the driver and passengers.

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Users around the state, from police departments to homeowners’ associations, have installed the cameras as a crime-fighting tool or just to keep tabs on who is coming and going in a particular community.

The cameras can help solve crimes. But they also can let whoever has access to their database keep track of what ordinary people are up to. Trips to places people might like to keep private, including medical facilities, political rallies, religious centers, therapists and union organizing events, are suddenly easily accessible records. If a particular operator of a network of cameras has no policy saying otherwise, the images could remain available for years. Big Brother could have a much more accurate record of where you have been in recent years than you do.

People have no way to opt out of the system because every vehicle is required to have license plates. As the cameras have become cheaper, they have become ubiquitous.

The Illinois General Assembly ended its session earlier this month, as it has in other recent sessions, without fully addressing these privacy issues. Protecting people’s privacy is a job it needs to finish.

The Legislature did send a bill to Gov. J.B Pritzker that, among other measures, would require all images collected by cameras to be deleted within 120 days, unless the images are relevant to an ongoing investigation or pending criminal trial. Pritzker should sign it.

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But that’s just a start. As stakeholders have done with other issues, such as police use of drones, they should come together to devise rules to give authorities a crime-fighting tool while not excessively infringing on individual privacy.

We’d also like to see more data beyond anecdotal evidence that the cameras reduce crime. And that false identifications are kept to a very low minimum.

Catching criminals is important. But so is protecting the right of law-abiding citizens to live their lives without constantly being under the klieg lights.

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