The ACLU's witch hunt against license plate recognition

We are once again seeing a witch hunt against useful technology, this time in the shape of license plate recognition (LPR) technology. LPR is technology that can read and record the license plate numbers of cars, whether stationary or while driving by.

An LPR camera mounted on a police car can read a plate and instantly compare with an FBI database of plate numbers associated with criminal investigations or missing persons. The officer gets an immediate notice and can take appropriate action to solve a crime or save a life.

An LPR camera used by an asset recovery specialist works the same way, enabling the repossession of vehicles where the owner defaulted on a loan or lease, or even the recovery of stolen vehicles. This kind of LPR-assisted vehicle recovery helps lower insurance and interest rates for America’s car drivers and owners.

LPR systems are also used to enforce payment for parking garages and tollbooths.  And you’re seeing more LPR cameras monitoring vehicles entering private residential communities and high-security sites such as airports, train stations, water treatment facilities, and nuclear power plants.

In all these cases, LPR camera-and-compare systems are helping to solve and prevent crimes, fight terrorism, and reduce costs for consumers. Despite these benefits, the ACLU published a report calling for restrictions on LPR technology because of potential misuse of the data.

The ACLU report used the word “risk” 12 times, “could” 7 times, and an awful lot of “might” and “perhaps.”  Much of the ACLU’s angst is over historical databases, where police or private companies are storing the date, time, and location of plates scanned by LPR cameras on police cars, along highways, or from private entities. The ACLU fears that historical LPR data might be "used by the police to track innocent people, or otherwise abused."

But the ACLU says little about how historical LPR databases help maintain public safety and recover vehicles.

Historical LPR data has helped to find criminals in thousands of cases, including those responsible for the failed Times Square bombing. One vendor, Vigilant Solutions, has documented over 750,000 instances where their vehicle location data helped public safety officials in criminal investigations involving murder, rape, kidnapping, terrorism, assaults, and crimes involving children.

Another vendor, Digital Recognition Network (DRN), allows LPR data access only to state-licensed professionals and contractors for regulated banks and insurance carriers.  In just the last 4 years, DRN has helped recover over 190,000 vehicles worth over $1.3 billion.  That’s $1.3 billion that wasn’t passed along to car owners in the form of higher interest rates and insurance premiums.

Still, the ACLU is worried that people might hack into these historical LPR databases to stalk or harass someone.  But there are already laws against hacking, stalking, and harassment -- regardless of the technology used.

The ACLU is also afraid because some “federal agencies illegally targeted activists in the civil rights, anti-war, and labor movements.”  But this kind of discrimination is now illegal.  Besides, LPR data is just a plate number – not the identity of the registered owner.  To learn the owner, someone would have to hack the Department of Motor Vehicles, which is a federal crime under the Drivers Privacy Protection Act.

Over the last few decades, some worried about the potential misuse of technologies such as Caller-ID and mobile phone cameras. Now, these are features we all expect. Instead of enacting new laws to ban these technologies, we enforced laws against bad behavior such as unlawful photographs, stalking, and harassment. Let’s do the same for LPR: focus on stopping bad conduct—no matter what technology is involved.

The ALCU should call off their technology witch-hunt. Hysterics in the public square are never a good way to drive public policy. Establishing clear boundaries for new technologies – instead of banning them – is the best course of action.

DelBianco is the executive director of NetChoice (www.netchoice.org), a trade association that represents e-commerce businesses and online consumers, and campaigns for policies that encourage innovation and high-tech job creation.

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