PhotoHere are some civil-liberty questions worth debating: assuming you're an ordinary everyday person going about your life without harming others, an assumption which holds true for the overwhelming majority of people, do you have any privacy rights when you're outside your own home?

Do police have the right to track you, and keep a permanent record of your whereabouts at all times? If the cops have this right, should anybody else?

These are not hypothetical questions in today's interconnected Internet era, with recording technology so cheap and ubiquitous, anybody with a smartphone has the ability to take pictures or video footage, then almost instantly post it online or add it to a distant database. That, of course, is in addition to the security cameras, traffic cams, police dashboard cameras, and other publicly and privately owned surveillance tools in today's society.

Unsurprisingly, government and law enforcement officials have been quick to embrace such surveillance technologies, especially license-plate scanners that photograph the license plate of any passing vehicle, then instantly compare it to the plates recorded on one of several databases.

False positives

Sometimes, the comparison leads to a false positive, which leads to innocent motorists terrorized and pulled over at gunpoint after, for example, a police license plate scanner mistakenly identified a certain vehicle as “stolen,” and the cops didn't bother noticing that the stolen vehicle was a gray GMC truck, whereas the woman they held at gunpoint was driving a burgundy Lexus sedan.

That said: license-plate scanners are indeed useful for police trying to find stolen cars, in addition to police who want to determine a suspect's habits and whereabouts in a given time period. That's the unsurprising conclusion the Rand Corporation reached in its recently released study “License plate readers for law enforcement: opportunities and obstacles.”

The opportunities, from a law-enforcement perspective, are pretty obvious: while license-plate readers (LPRs) were initially used to detect stolen plates and vehicles, their use has expanded to cover other areas as well:

Authorities can retrieve LPR data to determine vehicles in the vicinity of a crime scene.

The system can provide photos of those vehicles to confirm suspect alibis.

LPR data can be used to analyze crime patterns.

The chief obstacles or hurdles (again from the law-enforcment perspective) are certain civil-libertarian types:

Many privacy advocates have challenged the practice of storing LPR data not associated with a specific crime.

Some police departments lack clear guidance on storing plate data, leaving privacy advocates to fear it can be kept and retrieved indefinitely.

Some privacy advocates, departments, and lawmakers have moved to codify police procedures on recording these data; some have banned the technology's use outright.

Storage length

Meanwhile, the law enforcement point of view says that it's better to hold on to this data as long as posisble, maybe even indefinitely: “Systems with the most database access and longest retention policies are the most beneficial because they can provide the greatest number of alerts and the ability to retrieve LPR data over time across law enforcement activities.”

Again, that's pretty self-evident: the more information you store about individuals' whereabouts, the easier it is to later determine where they were or what they were doing, should you want to know this -- for good purposes, or otherwise.

Ultimately, the study concluded that police and other law enforcement agencies ought to use license plate scanners far more than they currently do. The list of six “recommendations” included “Estimate and secure necessary funding for the entire lifecycle of LPR technology,” “Ensure that sufficient infrastructure is in place to handle different types of data promptly and frequently,” and “Integrate LPR systems into daily agency operations and learn from other agencies how to expand their use to more analytical operations.”

Only at the end of the list came the recommendation “Identify tradeoffs between privacy rights and law-enforcement uses.” (Whether “identify” tradeoffs would lead to actually “respecting” tradeoffs, or even concluding “maybe the tradeoffs aren't worth it, having every citizen's whereabouts tracked and recorded just to make cops' jobs a little easier,” isn't specified.)

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