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LRPD license plate scanner raises privacy issues 

click to enlarge ACLU Arkansas's Rita Sklar image

The Little Rock Police Department now has a patrol car on the beat — with more soon to come — that reads every license plate it sees in real time, recording data on when and where the plate was seen. While the goal is to help officers spot plates associated with wanted cars, the system captures every plate it sees, and the data it collects can be stored and searched at a later date. With most of that data potentially accessible to both law enforcement and anyone who makes a Freedom of Information Act request about a specific plate number, the ability to store and cross-reference data on the movements of innocent citizens has privacy advocates up in arms about similar systems nationwide.

Little Rock Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Cassandra Davis said the department currently has a license plate reader in one car, and said three more will soon hit the streets as new patrol cars are introduced. Built by a company called Pannin Technologies, the license plate reader costs around $14,000 per vehicle, and consists of two cameras that read any license plate that passes through the camera's field of view. One camera is forward-facing to read plates on the roadway, while another points to the side to read plates in parking lots.

"The date, time, LPN [license plate number] and GPS coordinates are stored each time a license plate is 'read,' " Davis said in an e-mail exchange about the system. "Those 'reads' can be uploaded to a server and then [we can] search records if needed."

When a plate is captured by the system, Davis said, it's compared to 144 databases, including a list of plate numbers associated with all known stolen vehicles in the U.S. — around 225,000 plates — downloaded each morning from the Arkansas Crime Information Center, plates associated with drivers who have local warrants, and "Be On The Lookout" alerts on recent crimes. If the system reads a plate that's in the database, it will alert the officer. Davis said the first system was installed in March, but went through a configuration period for the first few months and wasn't constantly in use. She said license plate information captured by the system is archived on a temporary server, which currently holds 27,405 records.

The LRPD currently has no written policy on when data captured by the system should be deleted, but Davis said the national standard is to retain the information for three years. She said that if someone made an FOI request for data about a certain plate, the request would have to be reviewed by the city attorney, "as the data contains information that would not ordinarily be subject to FOI. The case might be that certain information would be redacted prior to release."

Bill Sadler, spokesman with the Arkansas State Police, said the ASP tested a license plate scanning system in a cruiser for around three months earlier this year, but said the system "had quite a few technical problems" and was eventually returned. He said that system checked plates against a preloaded list of information on stolen vehicles, and didn't capture and store information.

A reporter for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, for an Aug. 10 story on how license plate scanning systems can breach the privacy of people who've committed no crimes, made an FOIA request for records relating to Minneapolis Police Department patrol car scans of the plate on his private vehicle, and received a list of entries featuring dates, times, and GPS coordinates that detailed his daily movements to and from work and around Minneapolis. The Minneapolis Police Department retains the data from their license plate scanners for one year.

Rita Sklar, executive director of ACLU of Arkansas, said she has "very serious concerns" about the use of license plate scanners. She said that while the scanners are a legitimate tool for narrowly focused law enforcement purposes such as identifying stolen vehicles or vehicles associated with crimes, the storing of information about the cars of private citizens who aren't suspected of wrongdoing is troubling. She said the national ACLU has been involved in promoting legislation to limit the use of automatic license plate readers nationwide for that reason, and the Arkansas office might be interested in getting involved in promoting a similar measure here.

"By collecting and storing information on all of us," Sklar said, "it's one step closer to a national database on all of our movements: what friends you go to see, what doctors, what events you take part in, what political events, what protests, what church you attend. It's a terrible invasion of privacy that everyone should be concerned about."

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