Law-enforcement technologyProliferation of license plate readers worry privacy advocates

Published 28 December 2012

Automated License Plate Recognition (ALPR) technology has taken off in recent years, and the police says it is the greatest innovation since fingerprints and DNA; the technology has changed the way police finds cars  connected to crimes, but in the process it has upset many privacy advocates

Automated License Plate Recognition (ALPR) technology has taken off in recent years, and the  police says it is the greatest innovation since fingerprints and DNA. The technology has changed the way police finds cars  connected to crimes, but in the process it has upset many privacy advocates.

The ALPR system currently being used in Greenfield, Wisconsin costs $18,700.

“It’s clearly one of the biggest advancements in technology we have had in the last 50 or more years,” Greenfield Police Chief Brad Wentlandt told Fox6.

Fox6 reports that ALPR systems have been used for years on bridges, in tunnels, and at toll systems  to catch speeders or people running through toll plazas, but police departments across the United States and  Canada have started using them for local means.

“You don’t have to think about it. It’s constantly helping you scan for stolen vehicles and other violations. You can drive rather quickly in a parking lot and it will still pick up the read,” Greenfield Police Officer Brian Wallander told Fox6.

Police in Greenfield has equipped two squad cars with ALPR systems. Each car has four cameras, two in the front and two on the side. When the camera recognizes something that looks like a license plate, the software converts the plate into text. The system then compares the text to a list of plates belonging to stolen cars, cars involved in AMBER alters, and cars that are suspected of being involved in crimes. The process takes seconds.

Today there are thirty-seven different departments in southeastern Wisconsin alone using the ALPR system and hundreds more across the nation.

“The agencies that don’t have license plate reader technology want the technology because of the ability to multiply the eyes that are out there on the road,” Chief Wendlandt said.

The issue concerning citizens and privacy advocates is that along with gathering information on criminals, the system also gathers information on ordinary people, most of whom have not committed a crime.

Fox6 producer Kate Krause, who lives in Greenfield, filed an open record request to see whether the police is storing information on her minivan. Krause was shocked to discover there were four records of her location on specific dates and times.

“Obviously you know if a cop is following you, but you don’t know they are snapping shots of your license plate as you are driving,” Krause explained. “It is almost as if you have big brother watching you.”

Privacy advocates like Jennifer Lynch, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is concerned about people’s rights being violated.

“Of course everybody wants to be able to catch criminals, but that can’t be the justification for collecting massive amounts of information on Americans,” Lynch told Fox6. “You can really map out a picture of a person’s life with all that information,” Lynch added.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) acknowledges that the system raises privacy concerns because it can “reveal an individual’s driving habits,” placing them at “political protests, doctor’s offices or religious places of worship.”

At this time the IACP has not set any rules on the data the ALPR systems collect, but individual departments have come up with their own rules. Greenfield police keep data they gather on cars for one year, while police in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin will keep their data for three years, and other departments have decided to get rid of the information immediately confirmed that their car is not involved in any criminal activity.

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