In recent years, automatic license plate readers have become an increasingly popular technological tool in police departments across the country. In a 2011 survey, 71 percent of police departments reported they use license plate readers.
According to one report, police mount them to their patrol cars and even install them on top of utility poles and on highway overpasses, where they scan the license plates of passing cars – saving police officers the time and trouble of manually inputting the numbers. One major manufacturer of the technology boasts its cameras are capable of capturing up to 1,800 license plates per minute at up to 150 miles per hour.
Aside from the many privacy concerns raised by police and third party companies collecting the data of millions of – mostly innocent – drivers, criminal justice experts also say the license plate readers encourage police to unfairly target people in low-income neighborhoods.
When the Electronic Frontier Foundation examined the license plate reader data from the police department in Oakland, California, it discovered that the police there used license plate readers in low-income areas at a disproportionately high rate compared to more affluent neighborhoods. In most of these neighborhoods, the majority of the residents were minorities.
Privacy advocates also worry about police departments hanging on to data with few or no guidelines for disposing of it. For example, out of 1 million license plate scans performed in Maryland, just 2,000 even raised a red flag of criminal activity. Of the 2,000 that triggered a closer look by police, the majority were connected with emission violations or registration issues. In one million scans, only 47 had a connection to a serious crime. Criminal justice experts have expressed concerns about the security of this data, as well as the ethical practices of third party companies who produce the license plate reading software.
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