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States Tilting at LPR Privacy Windmills – at a cost to citizens safety

Like Don Quixote charging dragons that don’t exist, states like Maryland are tilting at license plate recognition (LPR) technology.

This week Maryland legislators, listening to over-the-top rhetoric, introduced a bill to restrict law enforcement’s use of LPR technology – significantly diminishing law enforcement’s ability to stop crimes and save lives.

These concerns take the shape of potential abuses of LPR.  Fortunately, existing police policies, federal laws, and the LPR providers already address the privacy concerns regarding the use of LPR. 

Major LPR providers log the identity of officers when they make an inquiry about a license plate and a police case number must accompany each request.  This system makes identification of officers who abuse the system trivially easy.  As our recent survey confirmed, police officers are aware of sanctions and punishment for any abuses.  So these abuses are unlikely to occur and if they do, easily punished.

Courts repeatedly declare that a license plate is just a number that identifies a piece of metal, not a person.  So states and federal government heavily regulate the ability to link license plates to personal information through the Drivers Privacy Protection Act.

So what does this bill really accomplish?  Well, it only disadvantages Maryland law enforcement from protecting its own citizens.  The bill makes it harder for Maryland police to help recover kidnap victims and locate criminals.

So what should states like Maryland be doing about LPR privacy fears?

The facts make it pretty clear that lawmakers don’t have to do anything. The current push to enact anti-LPR legislation has been largely manufactured by the ACLU, in its opportunistic drive to capitalize on the ongoing Snowden scandal.

But if states do want to improve the way LPR data is handled, the solution is relatively simple: focus on data protection, control and reporting.  For example, states could require law enforcement to use only LPR services that log and audit the requests.  The state could create rules restricting law enforcement’s access to LPR as part of a valid investigation.

Nonetheless, legislation to remove a law enforcement tool merely because of possible abuses is simply misguided. Hopefully Maryland and other state lawmakers will realize there aren’t really any privacy dragons in LPR.  So they don’t have to slay this effective tool to protect citizens.


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