While originally intended as a means for identifying unregistered drivers and traffic violators, New York police departments are increasingly turning to license plate reading technology as an intelligence gathering tool. While the images obtained by such technology can undoutedbly be useful to law enforcement by identifying locations and establishing patterns when pursuing dangerous criminals, they also raise questions about how the information gleaned can be used inappropriately against private citizens.
Officer.com reports that, when used correctly, license plate readers are a boon to police officers investing burglaries, bank robberies and other types of pattern crimes. Departments can analyze recent crime trends and then position cameras in high crime areas to try and find clues and identify potential suspects. As technology has improved, the pictures from these readers have gone from grainy and blurry to clear digital images. Since the readers capture images that are taken in public, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy, proponents argue.
Officer.com reports that, when used correctly, license plate readers are a boon to police officers investing burglaries, bank robberies and other types of pattern crimes.
Others however, including the American Civil Liberties Union, disagree. In 2013, the ACLU issued a report expressing concerns about their use, which cites an example of the NYPD using plate readers to record attendees at a New York mosque. According to the Huffington Post, license plate readers have already been misused by law enforcement in other areas of the country as well. For example an officer in Washington D.C. looked up plates of cars parked near a gay bar and then blackmailed the vehicles’ owners.
So a tool that was conceived with the intent of catching traffic violators in the act has now become a means of conducting mass digital surveillance. Use of license plate readers could potentially create a permanent database of any vehicle’s location at any given time and this raises serious questions about whether their use constitutes an invasion of privacy. It remains to be seen whether state and federal legislators will take any action to limit their use or regulate how the data they collect is stored.