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Your license plate: Window to your life

Taylor Armerding | Jan. 12, 2016
Automated License Plate Readers, which collect not just numbers and letters but the location and time of the scan, are both a privacy and security concern. While they are supposed to be confidential, accessible only to law enforcement, recent reports have found some systems wide open to anyone with a browser.

Most of those laws say the data may only be used for law enforcement purposes and limit the time it is stored to anywhere from 21 days to several years.

But most also contain exceptions, such as the recording of plate information at automated tollbooths or for the security of specific bridges and approach structures.

That leaves 40 states without regulation, and nothing pending at the federal level.

Lynch did say that, “there are many Congress members who are concerned about Americans’ privacy.”

But for now, the surveillance is both pervasive and vulnerable to hacks.

 nancy libin
Nancy Libin, partner, Jenner & Block

Nancy Libin, a partner at Jenner & Block and former chief privacy officer at the Department of Justice, said there hasn’t been enough study of the data being collected about not only its current, but possible future, use.

“Law enforcement is often tempted to use data it has collected for one purpose or another purpose,” she said. “So it’s a big surveillance tool, to collect information that may one day become useful to them.”

And she said it could become, “even more pernicious, considering the way technology is evolving. It might be possible to mine the data and conduct predictive searches about what somebody might do,” – which sounds like the dystopian future imagined in the movie “Minority Report”.

Drew Mitnik, policy counsel at Access Now, expressed similar concerns. “License plate information is sensitive on its own,” he said, “but it could also be combined with other information taken from cell phones and other smart devices, to provide the government a disturbingly detailed illustration of our lives.

And given that there is no such thing as 100 percent security, Mitnik and other privacy advocates say the unfettered use of ALPRs and other digital surveillance continue to increase the risks that the daily routines of millions of Americans could be exposed, “to anyone with an Internet connection.”

 drew mitnik
Drew Mitnik, policy counsel at Access Now

“We haven't had a true, open conversation about what information the government is capturing, what they are doing with it, and whether the privacy risks are acceptable,” Mitnik said.

Lynch said she believes public awareness is the most effective way to regain a measure of control over government surveillance.

“There have been public protests about this at various city council meetings and activism at the state legislative level,” she said. “That’s how we’ve seen privacy-protective laws pass in several states.”

Westby said she thinks public awareness is growing that the collection of multiple data points leads to them “being integrated and analyzed and used in a manner that violates privacy – and potentially constitutional rights. Eventually, big data will become the biggest privacy issue in the U.S.”


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