Gazette Editorial Board
Cedar Rapids uses traffic cameras to help catch red-light runners and speeders. It’s been a generally effective, albeit controversial, high-tech police tool. Will license-plate readers mounted on patrol cars be next?
Don’t bet against it.
The plate readers are a more recent technology development but their use is rapidly becoming as common as other high-tech tools. In Iowa, Polk County has used them for a year. And interestingly, three of the seven finalists competing for the Cedar Rapids Police Chief position are big proponents of the system.
The readers allow officers in patrol cars to instantly scan license plates on vehicles they pass or meet. The information is entered into computer databases to see if a vehicle is stolen or there’s a warrant for the owner’s arrest.
Plate readers are different from traffic cameras, which are used for deterrence and enforcement and generate automatic traffic tickets that, in Iowa, are a civil offense, not a criminal violation.
Plate readers are an investigative tool. Many police officials around the country praise their effectiveness in tracking down murder, kidnapping and car theft suspects, saving time and manpower.
But readers also collect information on people who are just minding their own business. And that action raises serious privacy concerns.
Clear policies on what to do with all the data collected are hard to find. And without them, scenarios like the following, and others, are possible. Say a husband tells police his wife is missing. He provides the plate number of the vehicle she drives. Police plug the information into the database and it leads them to the spouse — who is rendezvousing with a lover. This example and others beget difficult questions: Who gets to use the plate reader data? What’s the threshold — all violations, even minor ones, or …? And when, if ever, will the data be deleted?
An American Civil Liberties Union spokesman on technology and liberty flat out says the government has no business gathering information on people without a warrant.
Yet legal experts such as Orin Kerr, a George Washington University professor who monitors U.S. Supreme Court decisions, say the plate readers likely would pass the constitutional test.
We see potential public safety value in the plate readers. But before local governments buy into a system, they should clearly define how the devices and the data they generate can or can’t be used. Without such parameters and restrictions, and diligent oversight, privacy abuses are almost certain to occur.
n Comments: thegazette.com/category/opinion/editorial, email@example.com