A license plate reader (LPR) that many Minnesota law enforcement agencies have and the data it collects can know where you were five days, five weeks, five months, even 5 years ago. The data the LPR collects and disseminates can be used to get an individuals daily routine down pat. Just review the Star Tribune articles about former Mayor R.T. Rybak and reporter Eric Roper.
The emerging technology, which can read 1,800 license plates per minute from a device mounted on a dashboard, roof, or fixed on a bridge as is being done in past or now on the Minneapolis Broadway Bridge is a tech-tool for crime fighting.
Usage of LPR’s raises issues of civil rights, civil liberties, privacy, and accountability. This debate has played out on the floors of the Minnesota Legislature in debate, but is coming to a Conference Committee soon. Both legislative bodies, the House and the Senate, have passed their versions of the bill that’s attempting to regulate the use of this vacuum cleaner of data.
The House position by a strong floor vote is very clear, any database of data that is used to keep tabs on innocent people’s movements for any time is a no, no. On the other hand, the Senate bill has a 90 day retention period for LPR scans on innocent people, but can be easily undermined by police stating we may need it for a criminal investigation. The discretion in the bill allows for an agency to keep all scans forever.
Minnesota law enforcement believes tracking innocent peoples license plate data and whereabouts and storing the data is important to fight crime. These databases whether in the local police department or stored in a central repository can reconstruct an individuals movements and creates an environment after the fact surveillance of innocent people without a warrant.
In the past several years, law enforcement agencies in Minnesota collected millions of license plate records through LPR’s. For example, in Minneapolis in 2011 of the 3,750,877 license plate data collected only 0.68 percent (25,543) were hits, meaning associated with a a possible crime, or whatever the local agency is using as a standard (persons of interest, stolen cars, stolen plates, scofflaws, ie). Many of the hits are associated with such offenses as cancelled insurance or revoked driver’s license. In 2013, I went to the Bloomington Police Department and Minneapolis Police Department and per data requests got samples of time periods of scans and hits which included tens of thousands of scans. The same pattern continued. The percentage for hits was nearly half a percent. St Paul Police in 2012 had 2,549,777 LPR scans with 1,104 hits.
For millions of license plate scans in Minnesota, very few are associated with serious crimes including stolen vehicles for which the original purpose of LPR’s were supposed to be used for. The rest of the hits are for non-violent violations.
Key issue of the LPR debate at the Legislature: The 99 percent of people scanned by Minnesota’s LPR cameras are innocent and law-abiding Minnesotans. What should the restrictions be and how long should law enforcement be able to retain scans that are not hits and collected on innocent people?
There’s no laws in place to deal with this new technology. Law enforcement argues there is no right to privacy and that there should not be too much regulation. Law enforcement officials stated in testimony that Minnesotans do not have an expectation of privacy of where their car goes, what can be seen in public is public.
But what’s different is that records collected and disseminated about the locations of where a vehicle has been spotted creates privacy interests to when law enforcement uses such tools for surveillance purposes and do collection of movements of law abiding and innocent people. It has been documented that license plate readers have been used to monitor mosques, political rallies in Virginia, and recently an air show in Florida. In conversations with Minnesota law enforcement officials I have not been told that license plate readers will NOT be used to monitor and do surveillance of public events.
For anyone that has seen the first Godfather movie, they remember the scene of FBI agents jotting down license plate numbers of the guests and the celebrants who are at the Corleone compound. Should this happen in the modern day at public events, political rallies, or at the Minnesota State Fair entrances with the use of LPR’s?
Will hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans vehicle license plates (individuals) be recorded, stamped with location and time, and disseminated to various local, state, and federal law enforcement and agencies and be retained indefinitely?
There are Homeland Security federal grants and state funded monies through the Minnesota Department of Commerce to purchase LPR’s. Many law enforcement agencies are waiting to decide whether or not to get LPR’s until the Legislature decides on the proposed bills. Should we have a statewide network of license plate readers, a mass surveillance network?
Let your legislators know what you think. If you don’t who will.
Below is a link of posts I have done in the past on license plate readers.