License plate readers enable spying on innocent and law abiding Minnesotans


The discussion that the Legislature had and action they took in regards to a new technology nearly a quarter of a century ago is very similar to the one they are having now with License Plate Readers. (LPR)

In the late eighties, the Minnesota Legislature placed limits on a new tool of technology that law enforcement was beginning to use on a regular basis. The technology allowed cops to easily do surveillance and spy on people. It was known as a “bird dog.” It was the use of a radio transmitter that allowed police to electronically track the “bird dog” (beeper) where ever it was placed. On a bumper of a car, for example.

The Legislature felt that using a “bird dog” further narrowed liberty and privacy rights for Minnesotans. The technology allowed law enforcement to constantly spy on its citizens where they went, what route they took, and for how long without any kind of oversight and accountability. There was discussion of placing a search warrant requirement, but there was strong opposition by law enforcement. What ended up as law was a court order had to be issued by a judge, with independent review and had to meet a low threshold.

Last year the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that attaching a GPS device to a vehicle and then using the device to monitor the vehicle’s movements constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment. Years later, what the Minnesota Legislature did the Court finally recognized that a GPS device, much more sophisticated, than the old “bird dog” should have an independent court oversight, but went one step further than the Legislature, a search warrant would be required. (Minnesota was cited in the briefs in the Jones case as placing limits on such GPS devices)

The LPR’s is another example of new technology moving fast to where it’s beginning to become ubiquitous with law enforcement agencies. Until the Star Tribune’s attention in a series of stories by Eric Roper the public did not know about this new surveillance tool to spy on innocent and law abiding Minnesotans. With public attention on the use of LPR’s and the data it collects on the whereabouts of innocent people and then retains and keeps them forever or a limited time the Legislature is called upon to act again similar to the “bird dog” problem.

There are two bills that the Legislature will begin to discuss this week. The Chief Authors are: Representative Holberg and Senator Dibble.

The bills are House File 488 / Senate File 210 and House File 474 / Senate File 385.

The proposed legislation address some issues such as how long the data should be kept on in regards if there is not a hit, elements of accountability which can be a basis for a public document, and the criteria that the link can be made with the photo of the license plate and the database, but also the classification of the data.

My take is that law enforcement should destroy the data as quickly as possible if there is not a hit based on criteria decided by the Legislature. As I stated in my previous posts on this matter and to others if LPR data is going to be kept on people who are suspected of no crime for a period of time the data should be public. The rationale from my perspective is clear. It has been the horrendous behavior of Minnesota law enforcement over the last decade with databases. In secret there can be be no accountability or transparency as to how the police will use this data to do surveillance and spy on the people of Minnesota.

The bills as introduced do not address of who the data can be directly shared with. Should non hit data be shared with the Federal Government or to private companies who are in the business of collecting LPR data then repackaging it and selling to such organizations as law enforcement. Should these private companies be regulated themselves in Minnesota? Should there be a state authorized centralized database?

Law enforcement more than likely has used this new technology at specific locations with trying to locate certain individuals. Should a search warrant be used in this kind of situation? It is so easy to place a license plate reader if front of a place of worship, government building, or any place else and scan hundreds if not thousands of license plates.

In reading user guides of LPR’s and various policies of law enforcement agencies law enforcement would like to use these new tools for “everything under the sun”. As the Washington County Sheriff indicates he wants to use LPR data for “official law enforcement purposes”. The ELSAG North America Mobile Plate Hunter-900 user guide suggests to use the their tool from watch list development to Homeland Security initiatives. The “Plate Hunter” also states it can be used to remove suspended and revoked drivers off the road before they cause an accident, drug interdiction, or pick up people for their unpaid taxes, among a number of suggestions. As one member of the Minnesota House of Representatives told me LPR’s it can also be used to fight terrorism.

Law enforcement people will be testifying in general that LPR’s are only enhancing a routine they do now. It is not unlike an officer seeing a plate and doing a license check through the current Minnesota License Plate Data File. I beg to differ.

There is no choice for me or others when an LPR camera is placed on the Lowry Bridge in Minneapolis or on a squad car in Marshall, Minnesota on the corner of West Main St. and South 4th St. where this new tool is used broadly, randomly, and arbitrarily in gathering and storing data on my whereabouts.

In this post we have not even discussed thoroughly once the plate data is linked with names how then it can be used to data mine for patterns and analysis or paired up with other databases of information.

There is more than a substantial judgement as to why the people of Minnesota and the Legislature should be concerned about the role of LPR cameras in Minnesota.

As a person said in an article:

“I don’t blame law enforcement for wanting to get more information. If I was in their position, I’d want all the information I could get. But we have a Constitution, and we have checks and balances precisely because no branch of government should be trusted completely.” Asked about envisioning a future where one’s travels are constantly monitored. The person stated: “I don’t think that’s the world we want to live in.”

“You have nothing to hide, so there is nothing to fear” I am told about the use of LPR’s in Minnesota. Sorry, I am not of that opinion. This new technology scrapes up millions of records on innocent and law abiding people of Minnesota. It is then placed in a system that allows for government to spy and do surveillance on us.

That’s why I will be at the Legislature as I was when the “bird dog” issue came up nearly a quarter of century ago.