Don’t sweep up innocent people with crime-fighting automated license plate readers

The Illinois Legislature needs to get some rules in place to protect people from unnecessary surveillance.

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A Chicago police squad car equipped with license plate readers is parked outside the 9th District police station in the Bridgeport neighborhood last year.

A Chicago police squad car equipped with license plate readers is parked outside the 9th District police station in the Bridgeport neighborhood last year.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Eleven years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police need a warrant before they surreptitiously slip a GPS tracking device onto someone’s car.

But who needs a GPS tracking device these days? Police all around the country can track cars through high-definition automated license plate readers mounted alongside roads that do the same job. The license plate readers also are mounted on police cars. The readers record images of license plates and can deftly track vehicles as they pass one license plate reader after another. There’s no need for going through the pesky process of obtaining a warrant.

The growing surveillance network is legal, but it also seems to violate the spirit of the Supreme Court ruling.

The Illinois Legislature needs to get some rules in place to protect innocent people from unnecessary surveillance.

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Cutting down on crime, but ...

License plate readers can be an effective crime-fighting tool. When a crime occurs, police can check license plate images to see which cars were in the area. We’re told the Illinois State Police, who in April installed 56 additional license plate readers along Chicago expressways, are pleased with how much the readers have helped cut down on crime. The readers also are a boon for police departments struggling with personnel cuts.

If a license plate reader helped you get your stolen car back or tracked the person who sawed off your catalytic converter, you’d think the system was pretty cool.

But such a vast storehouse of information threatens to give authorities the ability to track innocent citizens to see if they went to protests, a church, a bar, a union meeting, a cancer treatment center, a political protest or a therapist.

Some systems allow police to input information provided by a witness, such as a car’s vehicle make, color or, say, a roof rack, and see if a car meeting that description was in a particular area. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, automated readers scan billions of license plates across the country every year.

And it’s not just police. Private groups on the lookout for porch pirates, crime suspects or reckless drivers can install cameras that feed into the police data base. Businesses can set up their own networks linked to police. In Alabama, Troy University installed license plate readers this month at all campus entrances and exits that alert campus police when registered sex offenders or those with felony warrants show up. Too bad if you borrowed the wrong person’s car, even that of a relative.

Innocent people also might be caught up in the surveillance web if the system makes mistakes through either inaccurate reads or faulty “hot lists” or criminal suspects.

Laws already in 16 other states

Most recently, the Des Plaines City Council was scheduled Tuesday evening to discuss buying 10 cameras from Flock Safety, which says it has more than 2,000 law enforcement customers. That would add Des Plaines to a growing network including other suburbs, the State Police and the Chicago Police. Because the networks can be linked, even if one police department puts privacy rules in place, tracking data can be accessed through a different community with less stringent — or no — standards.

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It’s possible to have a network that is effective in catching criminals without excessively invading privacy. Regulations should limit which databases can be compared with numbers collected by cameras, stipulate how long authorities can retain the data, spell out who can access the data and require safeguards from hacking. There also should be sensible rules about how the data is used by law enforcement.

At least 16 states have laws addressing the use of license plate readers or the data they collect, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. For example, New Hampshire requires law enforcement to delete data captured by license plate readers within three minutes if the data are not part of an investigation. That might not be a solution that works for every state, but every state should have its own sensible rules in place.

Automated license plate readers are probably here to stay. The Legislature needs to ensure they are used wisely.

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