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Data gathered by Automated License Plate Recognition Systems in Wrightsville Beach is purged after 30 days.
With the release of results from the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina’s public records requests from the 11 law enforcement agencies currently using Automated License Plate Recognition Systems, ACLU of N.C. communications director Mike Meno said the organization hopes to inform citizens about the relatively new technology.
“Like with a lot of new technology we have privacy concerns about it because it is still so new and the public is so unfamiliar with it that there is literally zero legislation for how these systems can be used,” Meno said by telephone on July 22. “There are no safeguards for privacy, there are no limits to how long police can keep the data, what they can use it for or who they can share it with.”
The specialized ALPRS cameras can be mounted on patrol cars or any other apparatus to read the license plate numbers of passing cars. Each plate read is crosschecked with police databases for vehicles that are stolen or involved in some other crime.
However, the ACLU of N.C. has discovered that a vast majority of the plates read are those of daily commuters. In one year the High Point Police Department’s ALPRS read 70,000 plates and positive hits to vehicles involved in crimes only made up 0.08 percent of that total, Meno said.
“We don’t oppose the technology when it is being used for legitimate law enforcement purposes; if it is being used to find a stolen car, to track down a fugitive, then absolutely use it,” he said. “But when there is no regulation of it there are these privacy concerns because … almost every single plate police are tracking is of an innocent person.”
The Wrightsville Beach Police Department deployed its three ALPRS cameras in February 2013 and since then Chief Dan House said the system has not picked up any significant hits.
“I think it is great we have not had any hits.” House said by telephone on July 23. “That means we haven’t had people over here that are driving around cars that have been involved in a crime.”
What police departments do with the data from the thousands of plates run from cars not involved in crimes was one of the main concerns for the ACLU of N.C. and Meno said North Carolina General Assembly Senate Bill 623 was introduced to place restrictions of the usage of the data. As of July 23, SB 623 has remained in the Senate Committee on Transportation since April 3, but even if it does not make it out of committee this session, Meno said it has at least started the conversation.
“These are perfectly legal everyday activities … that most folks want to be kept private. It is none of the government’s business, especially in this day and age where there is a national conversation going on about surveillance,” he said. “We live in a democratic society so folks should have some say over how much the government is able to monitor their activities.”
When SB 623 was introduced, House said his department used the language as a rough template to set the parameters for its ALPRS.
“We saw the writing on the wall and went ahead to be in compliance with that bill already,” House said. “If it does wind up passing we are already in compliance but if it does not then we don’t have any plans to change our policy.”
While Meno said some North Carolina law enforcement agencies like the Washington Police Department keep the plate data indefinitely, House said the WBPD purges the plate data after 30 days unless certain data is requested by the district attorney’s office.
Although he understands where the ACLU of N.C. is coming from with the privacy concerns, House said he does not think the ALPRSes are an invasion of privacy.
“It’s like putting a bumper sticker on the back of your car and asking somebody not to read it; they are there for a reason,” he said. “There is no exploitation of privacy, we have the authority under a North Carolina General Statute to run the plates for information so we already have that; this is just a force multiplier.”
Ultimately though, House said there should be parameters in place for using new surveillance technologies like the ALPRS.
“I think there does need to be some parameters,” he said. “Certainly it is a good crime-fighting law enforcement tool and I don’t want to see it restricted to where it is unusable.”