Law Enforcement’s Use of License Plate Detection Technology Raises Privacy Concerns

This past Monday, the Boston Globe discussed the increased use of license-plate reading cameras and other technology law enforcement organizations around Massachusetts have utilized over the past several years.[1]  The cameras have proven to be incredibly effective for law enforcement in detecting vehicles that are stolen, unregistered or uninsured.  Moreover, they have proven to be a remarkable return on investment.  One Sergeant insisted that the camera on his vehicle paid itself back within a matter of the first 11 days on the road.

An effective and efficient piece of technology to assist law enforcement, what’s not to love?  Not surprisingly, the technology’s popularity is on the rise in police departments throughout the Commonwealth.  They are useful in solving crimes, mainly because they are able to better track the movement of vehicles. “Most of the departments that deploy license plate readers use them primarily for traffic enforcement. But the scanners — sometimes called by the acronym ALPR — are also used for missing persons, AMBER alerts, active warrants, and open cases.”

But is this technology empowering government to the detriment of our civil liberties?  After all, nobody wants to live in a society where their every movement is monitored and recorded.

Should this useful technology be utilized to help law enforcement? 

Some would argue no.  As Benjamin Franklin once stated: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Many citizens would not go as far as Dr. Franklin.  Indeed, most Americans are willing to forego some privacy for the sake of enhanced security.

Of course, there is a larger question of what is a reasonable expectation of privacy?  Many of us have smartphones with GPS tracking technology, have we already ceded some of our privacy?  In the course of an ordinary day, most Americans come in contact with several forms of technology (smartphones, debit cards, laptops, tablets, etc) that make it easier to track our habits and whereabouts.  Again, what is reasonable?

If so, how do we prevent this technology from creating a dystopian, 1984-like society? 

The Boston Globe highlighted various instances of abuse by other Police Departments utilizing this technology.  Our law enforcement agencies are neither above the law nor infallible.  There must be a check on their usage of this data.

Currently, many police departments lack any formal policies and procedures to guide their use of the data collected.  This is clearly problematic.  Uniform policies and procedures must be established across the Commonwealth; and regular testing and reviews must be conducted to ensure compliance.  A good example to follow is Brookline.  As noted in the article: Brookline’s policy prohibits using camera scanners to intimidate or harass, to infringe free speech, or to conduct discriminatory surveillance based on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or other protected characteristics. The Brookline policy also requires civilian oversight and biannual audits for the town’s camera scanner system, which will be online within the next two months ….”

This technology is a boon to law enforcement.  It can and should be utilized, but it must be closely monitored and scrutinized with the utmost deference to the right to privacy.

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