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Hemanshu Nigam Headshot

License Plate Recognition: Saving Lives, Solving Crimes

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The ongoing National Security Agency (NSA) debacle prompted by former Internet surveillance professional, Edward Snowden, ignited a virtual firestorm of negative press about government encroachment on citizen privacy. Fueled by such mass media attention, legislators around the country have quickly followed suit by attacking a serious crime-solving and life-saving technology called License Plate Recognition (LPR) -- a troubling example of how the public opinion pendulum often swings back too far, and can have far-reaching, long term consequences.

In Massachusetts, for example, driven by State Representative Jonathan Hecht, House Bill 3068 would prohibit law enforcement agencies from retaining data captured from LPR cameras for more than 48 hours, unless a court approved longer retention. The law prompted the release of this white paper from NetChoice, a technology trade association. Just last week, I spoke to a meeting of state attorneys general about LPR technology, how it is used, and how to look for solutions in a world where privacy is the hot topic -- whether relevant to a situation or not.

For those familiar with how criminal investigations are actually conducted, the criticisms about LPR technology are provoking an alarming trend to prevent law enforcement agencies from apprehending criminals who have committed rapes, murders, kidnapping, and child abductions.

Operating with technology and data developed by companies such as Digital Recognition Network and Vigilant Solutions, LPR cameras on police cars, highway overpasses, repossession vehicles, airports and other ports of transportation identify license plates of passing vehicles marking the GPS coordinates along with a date and time stamp. By collecting this anonymous data (easily gathered by the average consumer with a smartphone or the police officer jotting it down on a pad), LPR technology improves a process used by law enforcement agencies for decades by replacing the punch-and-log system of running license plates in favor of an automated system that helps police immediately identify a criminal suspect's vehicle.

The reliance on LPR technology for criminal investigations continues to expand across the United States. Just recently, the Cobb County, Georgia Police Department resolved a missing person case -- that ended up being a homicide where the suspect was arrested -- with the help of license plate recognition technology. In Maricopa County, Arizona, the murderer of a sheriff's deputy and two others was arrested after LPR technology was used to locate the home of the suspect. Officers from the El Cajon, California Police Department rescued an insulin dependent diabetic after locating him using LPR data. Many other such examples exist and continue to occur.

Inflated concerns about LPR technology and invasions of privacy seem to be quite unfounded when one examines the current federal law protecting privacy of drivers and vehicle owners. The Drivers' Privacy Protection Act of 1994 (DPPA) protects any personally identifiable information of private citizens connected to a license plate number. The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) of each state maintains records of license plates linked to registered owners. In order for anyone to learn the owner of a vehicle based on a license plate number, they must obtain the information from the state DMV. DPPA prevents any DMV from revealing this information unless it's required for legally reasonable and defensible purpose. Police officers, for example, may access DMV data when conducting criminal investigations and even their access is controlled and monitored to prevent abuse.

With the robust privacy protection of DPPA, the misuse of personally identifiable information can be avoided, but restricting its access carries potentially devastating consequences. Speaking from my experience as a former prosecutor for Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office and for the United States Department of Justice, the evidence obtained from LPR serves an invaluable role in bringing justice to victims of crimes while also being capable of providing key information to exonerate the innocent.

As the controversy surrounding citizen privacy and "big brother" continues, consider the value anonymous data collection efforts, such as those enhanced by LPR technology, have for law enforcement agencies working to save lives and protect the citizens of their community. Given all this, would we have a defendable reason to give to a mother of an abducted child whose child could be recovered using LPR if we chose not to use such a life saving technology?

For more information on LPR technology, the DPPA, and how such systems protect average citizens while preventing unlawful access to personal information, please visit NetChoice.org.