License plate reader helps spot Virginia killer, but privacy issues remain

Virginia killer Vester Lee Flanagan II was tracked down Wednesday with the help of a license plate reader Wednesday, but larger issues surrounding security and individual freedom still worry privacy a
Virginia killer Vester Lee Flanagan II was tracked down Wednesday with the help of a license plate reader Wednesday, but larger issues surrounding security and individual freedom still worry privacy a

The controversy surrounding the use of license plate readers came to the forefront Wednesday as Vester Lee Flanagan II (a.k.a. Bryce Williams) was spotted by the Virginia State Police using an automatic license plate reader (ALPR ) while fleeing after shooting to death two Roanoke, Va., broadcast journalists.

Organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union have spoken out against these devices stating that they gather data and track not just suspects and criminals, but citizens going about their daily business, as well. Police departments, however, are calling for continued use of the technology as a critical tool in controlling crime.

Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney for the EFF, agreed that there are scenarios where using an ALPR makes sense, but said using an ALPR outside of cases like the one in Virginia, where law enforcement needed to nab a dangerous suspect on the run, is wrong.

“So while ALPRs may be a useful tool in an extreme scenario like this one, that shouldn't mean the police can indiscriminately keep data for an extended period of time on all other cars in the area,” Lynch told SCMagazine.com in an email on Thursday.

 

ALPRs are used by municipalities across the country. (Photo courtesy of the IACP)

ALPRs are used in a variety of ways. Some are mounted on patrol cars, while others are fixed to stations or even traffic lights. Originally a U.K. invention, they have been widely used in the United States since the early 2000s, according to David Roberts, senior program manager for the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) technology center.

"According to the 2013 Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, over three-quarters of local law enforcement agencies serving populations over 100,000 used ALPR technologies. Over half of agencies in jurisdictions of 25,000 – 100,000 reporting using the technology," Roberts said to SCMagazine.com in an email Thursday.

Earlier this year the leaders of 10 law enforcement agencies and organizations petitioned federal elected officials to fight against efforts to deny police use of ALPRs. The letter stated that the devices are not used to track people in real time, but to generate leads that will help solve crimes.

“We believe strong measures can be taken to ensure citizens' privacy while enabling law enforcement investigators to take advantage of the technology. Strict data access controls, mandatory auditing of all use of ALPR systems, and regular reporting on the use of the technology and data prevent misuse of the capability while enabling law enforcement to make productive use of it,” the letter stated.

Roberts said the IACP did not have any statistics on how many arrests were made due to ALPRs, but did say they are primarily used mounted on police cars to spot stolen or wanted vehicles.

However, some believe that while the intended use of this technology is to benefit society, they come with negative repercussions.

“I think a bigger concern is the threat to free speech posed by this kind of surveillance," said Lynch. "When people know they're being watched and the government is collecting information on their lives, they may be less likely to participate fully in society."

Another issue raised by the EFF is the security of the stored data, but one ALPR manufacturer cited federal security regulations for that must be used.

"It is also important to note that all users of LPR data must abide by a federal law called the Driver's Privacy Protection Act – DPPA. LPR data contains no personally identifiable information – just a license plate number and a time and GPS stamp. The only way to connect an LPR scan to a person is to access the Department of Motor Vehicle records. The DPPA stipulates a handful of permissible purposes when law enforcement can access DMV data to connect a scan to the vehicle owner.  Any violation of the DPPA is a federal crime," said Brian Shockley, Vigilant Solutions VP of marketing to SCMagazine.com in an email Thursday.

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