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A License Plate Reader Witch-Hunt

We are once again seeing a witch-hunt against technology, this time in the shape of license plate reader (LPR) technology.

What is LPR?

LPR is technology that makes it easier to read and write the license plate numbers of cars on the street and then compare them.  If murder suspect drives past a police car with an LPR camera, the camera reads the license plate, sees that number is flagged, and then instantly tells the officer.  If a repossession officer drives past a stolen car, they get a similar response allowing recovery before the thief drives off with the car.

LPR also makes it possible to store the number and location.  This allows police to identify likely locations of known criminals.  And it gives repossession officers the likely location of stolen assets.

Really all LPR does is bring an old practice into the 21st century.

In the past an officer would walk down the street writing down license plate numbers.  Then they went back to the office and compared it against a list of “flagged” plates.  With LPR, the same task can be done in the blink of an eye and without wasting man-hours.

This means putting more officers on the street rather than looking through file cabinets.  It means stopping the vehicle of criminal rather than it driving-by.

The efficiencies created by LPR allowed it to become a necessary tool to find criminals and save lives.  It assisted in finding criminals in thousands of cases, including the capture of those responsible for the failed Times Square bombing.

One vendor, Vigilant Solutions, has documented 750,000 instances where their vehicle location data helped in criminal investigations involving murder, rape, kidnapping, terrorism, assaults, and crimes involving children.

But the benefits of LPR aren’t just for law enforcement.

It allows us to monitor access to sensitive facilities and private communities, and to enforce payment in parking garages.  It can even help us find our cars lost in large parking lots.

LPR even helps keep insurance rates and interest rates lower by helping the recovery of vehicles that are stolen or in default on leases and loans.

Despite the good this new technology allows, this week we again saw the specter about the misuse of technology.

A recent report identified the potential harms of LPR.  But rather than identifying any specific examples, the report opined on all the ways LPR could be misused.

The report used the word “risk” 12 times, “could” 7 times, and similar words like “might” and “perhaps.”  This report blames a beneficial technology for cases where the technology is abused by people who behave illegally.

The report worried about criminals who use LPR to stalk.  But the report ignored existing anti-stalking laws that ban this practice regardless of the technology used.  The report raised concerns about “federal agencies illegally targeted activists in the civil right.”  But this targeting is already illegal.

If you are noticing a theme, it is the threat of future misuse to justify limitation on technology.

These types of technological fears can drown innovation.  Over the last few decades, some worried about the negative effects of technologies such as Caller-ID and phones with cameras.  Now these are all features we all want.  Instead of enacting new regulations to ban these technologies we enforced laws against bad behavior such as unlawful photographs, stalking, and harassment.

Let’s do the same for LPR; focusing stopping bad conduct—no matter what technology is involved.

Those concerned should call off their technology witch-hunt.  Since the best way to stop witches is enforcing laws outlawing witchcraft, not creating new laws to stop the use of brooms.