Do License Plate Readers Prevent Crime or Create Privacy Abuses?

Law enforcement agencies use license plate readers to help track stolen vehicles and deter crime through behavioral profiling. Does creating databases of this information compromise citizens’ privacy? Jeffrey Brown gets two views from technology consultant Sid Heal and Catherine Crump of the American Civil Liberties Union.

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    We continue our ongoing look at surveillance and privacy.

    Tonight, who's watching while you drive?

    Jeffrey Brown has our look.


    You see them on roadsides, bridges, toll plazas and in the hands of police. More and more these days, when Americans take to the road in their cars, cameras are in place to photograph and record their license plates.

    Police forces are widely adopting the technology. The date, time, and location of each image is uploaded into a database and can be used for a variety of things, from enforcing traffic laws to tracking stolen cars and suspects sought for criminal activity. But these license readers have also raised privacy concerns.

    We look at the issue now with technology consultant Sid Heal, formerly a commander with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, and Catherine Crump of the ACLU. She wrote a recent study evaluating the program.

    Well, welcome to both of you.

    Sid Heal, let me start with you. You have used this technology a lot. Tell us more about how these cameras work. Who's using them, and what are they good for?

    SID HEAL, technology consultant: Well, they're still in their infancy as far as employment.

    But in the simplest understanding, it's just an electronic hot sheet, although it saves the data, as opposed to a hot sheet, which we just compared the license plate with against known wanted license plates.


    A hot sheet, meaning you actually have the license plate number?



    Basically, what happens was is, for years and years and years, decades, we would get a piece of paper at the beginning of the shift that identified vehicles that were wanted for various crimes or for investigation. And then, if we came across them throughout the night, then we would stop time and ask them and basically finish the investigation.

    The automated license plate reader does that same thing electronically, only far more efficiently.


    All right, Catherine Crump, you have looked into the usage of it. What questions does it raise for you?

  • CATHERINE CRUMP, American Civil Liberties Union:

    It really depends how automated license plate readers are used.

    If they're simply used to scan a vehicle's license plate and then check to see whether that car is wanted for some reason, perhaps because it's stolen or there's an outstanding arrest warrant for the driver, the ACLU doesn't have a problem with that.

    The problem, though, is that, increasingly, law enforcement agencies are saving all of the photographs these license plate readers take, and not just of individuals who are wanted for a crime, but for every single person whose car passes them. And that information is being stored for increasingly long periods of time.

    Our concern is that what's happening is these plate readers are being used to create massive database us of where innocent Americans have traveled, and that these databases are being kept, tracking people stretching back for months, or even years.


    Is there evidence of actual misuse, or this more a fear or prospective or possible misuse?


    There is evidence of actual misuse depending on how the plate readers are implemented.

    So, for instance, the New York Police Department has purportedly driven-license-plate-reader-equipped vehicles by mosques in New York City to learn about their attendees. And in the U.K., there have been examples of individuals — an individual who was a participant in a political protest having his plate added to a hot list because of his participation in those types of events.

    So license plate readers do pose potential civil liberties risk.


    And let me ask Sid Heal to respond to that.

    You feel this is effective as a tool for police. Tell us how effective it is. And respond to this question of the potential and the actual cases of misuse.


    Well, it's very effective.

    Where we could run a plate maybe, oh, 20 an hour, and that would really be on the high end, the technology allows us to do 1,200 an hour. One of the advantages we have is behavioral profiling. There are certain characteristics that indicate criminal activity. And we have done that for years and years.

    This doesn't change anything that we have always had the ability to do. We just have the ability of doing it better.


    And what about the allegations of misuse?


    That's oversimplified, for the simple reason is, is that same argument could be made against the hot sheet.

    If somebody is going to abuse a system, they will abuse its regardless of how it manifests itself. In this particular case, you could do that same exact scenario and put it on a hot sheet. Nothing would change, except for the technology.


    So you don't find that there is a — this is not a privacy question for you? It's — as long as it's used correctly?


    I will just tell you, it's a privacy issue. There's no question about that. You don't get the amount of law enforcement you can afford. You get the amount that you can tolerate. And that's one of the things, that none of these technologies come without tradeoffs.


    Well, Ms. Crump, go ahead and respond to that, because that is the question, is the tradeoffs involved in better law enforcement.


    You know, in some ways, I think that the two of us share some common ground.

    We both agree that the technology can be quite effective and that there are legitimate uses. But I do think the fact that this technology allows police officers to examine far more license plates than was previously possible makes a difference.

    We recently issued a report in which we demonstrated by looking at police departments around the country that the vast majority of data that these plates — collect is about completely innocent people. You're talking about 99.99 percent of the data collected.

    And I think that you shouldn't have vast troves of data tracking where innocent people have gone sitting out there for prolonged periods of time. It's one thing if police departments want to hang on to this data for days or weeks, but it shouldn't stretch on for months or even years.


    Let me just ask you both, finally and briefly, if you would, are there rules about this? Are there safeguards in place? Or are there ideas that you have — let me start with you, Ms. Crump — about what you would like to see to allow law enforcement to use these things the way you think they should be used, but not abused?


    Today, there are not enough rules in place protecting privacy.

    One example of that is the fact that there are only five states currently that have legislation in place regulating how police department cans use this technology. Otherwise, they're wholly unregulated. The report we have issued contains — contains recommendations that we think can serve as the bedrock for good state laws protecting people's privacy and allowing law enforcement to use this.

    So, for instance, we suggest that law enforcement agencies only use license plate readers to check plates against hot lists or where they have a reason to believe that a crime has been committed, and not to simply troll through these troves of data looking for evidence of crimes.

    We also think that hot lists need to be updated regularly, and that police department should make their policies for use of license plate readers public, so that citizens have an opportunity to participate in deciding what those policies should be. So, so those are just some of our recommendations.


    And, Mr. Heal, what do you think about the safeguards that are already in place and what more could be done?


    She responded with about five or six different suggestions.

    I will say this. We're in agreement that, by and large, it's unregulated. And without some demonstrable need, I would also have privacy concerns. But, on the other hand, the public are the ultimate arbiters of how much they're willing to put up with.

    And I will give you just one example. There is no credit card, not even a library card, that is not indexing some database. And, as a result of that, there's a huge amount of information that's being gathered by businesses and your fellow citizens that have nothing to do with criminal activity and are completely beyond the purview of the U.S. Constitution.

    The biggest problem I think I would have with it is the fact that a license plate is required to drive on the streets and highways of the United States. And now you're saying basically that I have to have this license plate, but it's not OK to look at it. I mean, there's a disconnect here.


    All right, we will leave it there, but that — this debate will continue, no doubt.

    Sid Heal, Catherine Crump, thank you both very much.