El Dorado News-Times

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.

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.


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.


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.

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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