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Police departments in Southern California have come under fire from civil liberties groups for hoarding collected license plate data and using that data to track the movements of motorists not accused of any crime, just in case. The industry is now hitting back against negative press with an ad campaign that forwards license plate readers as a public safety Godsend, apparently with no conceivable downsides. The above commercial was produced by one of the largest license plate reader manufacturers in the country, PIPS Technology, and features law enforcement officers from departments in Southern California fawning over the tool with giddy admiration. The ad says literally nothing about privacy or the need to safeguard, delete or restrict the sharing of drivers' intimate location data.
It appears as if police have decided to stop playing defense on the license plate data question.
Using guidance from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), law enforcement argues that the license plate data it now routinely sucks up in cities and towns nationwide is not personally identifiable information, and therefore doesn't require much in the way of protection or restrictions on use or sharing. The IACP's privacy guidance on license plate readers laughably claims that license plate reader data is not personally identifiable because it requires an extra step before determining the name of the driver — the click of a mouse.
A license plate number identifies a specific vehicle, not a specific person. Although a license plate number may be linked or otherwise associated with an identifiable person, this potential can only be realized through a distinct, separate step (e.g., an inquiry to a Secretary of State or Department of Motor Vehicles data system). Absent this extra step, the license plate number and the time and location data attached to it are not personally identifying. Thus, even though LPR systems automate the collection of license plate numbers, it is the investigative process that identifies individuals.
The best systems are the ones that combine the mobile and the fixed point cameras, for several reasons. Number one: You have the fixed point cameras at strategically picked locations, you can tell what vehicles were leaving the scene of a crime, that go through that intersection…you'll be able to identify that vehicle. From that point, the mobile works in concert with that because the mobile units are constantly driving throughout your city, and everywhere they go they are mapping out your city. They're taking photographs of the cars and the license plates at every location and every house that they go by. You'll identify the cars at the fixed point locations that you're looking for and the mobile cameras are going to tell you, their data is going to tell you exactly where to find that car, and then you start doing your investigation. Very, very, very powerful from an investigative tool.