Use license plate readers to track criminals, not invade privacy

An Illinois bill protects women traveling here for an abortion from having license plate reader data used against them by other states. Stronger rules are needed to protect the privacy of other individuals, too.

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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 outside the Deering District police station in Bridgeport. The plate readers cannot be used to track women coming to Illinois for abortions, under a bill we urge Gov. Pritzker to quickly sign.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The Legislature took a step forward last month when it approved a bill to help protect the identities of women coming to Illinois for abortions from having their names revealed to their home states by automated license plate readers. It also protects individuals based on their immigration status.

And at a time when some states are trying to prosecute women just for traveling to another state to have an abortion — or thinking of doing so — Illinois’ step is important.

For example, in April, Idaho enacted a law restricting some out-of-state travel for abortions, the first state to do so. Abortion rights activists worry, with good reason, that other states will follow. Data gathered by the license plate readers could help those states learn who drove to an abortion clinic in another state where abortion is legal, such as Illinois.

That’s why the bill, which Gov. J.B. Pritzker should quickly sign, is important to protect women’s reproductive rights. But the law does not go far enough. Next, the Legislature should enact a bill to protect everyone’s privacy.

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License plate readers use software to scan the license plates of passing cars, recording the date, time, GPS coordinates and even photos. The technology can read thousands of license plates per minute from cameras alongside roadways, on street lights and on squad cars.

License plate readers can be an important tool when law enforcement is trying to track criminal suspects or solve cases, which is why Chicago and many suburbs keep adding more of them . Your license plates undoubtedly have been recorded, and anyone with access to the data can learn where you have been.

License plate readers can help police quickly identify suspects, which is a big plus for public safety.Someone who commits a crime can’t count on eluding police just by speeding away. State police have been installing more of the automated readers to reduce the number of shootings on expressways, for example, or to track down stolen cars.

But rules are needed to ensure data collected by the readers do not widely expose private information, such as who went to political protests, a bar, a union meeting, a cancer treatment center or a therapist, especially if they did so many months or years ago.

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The bill the Legislature just passed — backed by Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias — requires law enforcement agencies in other states to agree they will not use license plate data shared by Illinois to pursue individuals who travel to Illinois for reproductive care, which is lawful in this state. Giannoulias said Illinois is the first state to pass such a law.

The bill is important, because many women who can’t legally get abortions in their states now are coming to Illinois. Their identities need protection.

But regulations governing the privacy implications of license plate readers are all over the map. Some suburbs limit the amount of time data collected by license plate readers can be preserved to 30 days, while other municipalities may have no limit. Different law enforcement entities use different systems and have different data-sharing arrangements. And critics say the new bill does not contain a strong enough penalty for violations.

The Legislature should set a tight statewide limit. The data from license plate readers, which generally are operated by private companies, should not indefinitely include records of virtually every trip people have taken. Local agencies also should carefully limit who can access the data. And to prevent abuse of the system, records should be kept listing who accessed the data and for what purpose.

Catching criminals is important, but so is privacy. The Legislature needs to build on the bill just passed.

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