License plate readers alarm

License plate readers alarm

September 27th, 2012 in Opinion Free Press

Last November, Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond unveiled his Hamilton County Sheriff's Foundation. The foundation is a nonprofit outfit managed by the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga that gives the sheriff an opportunity to raise funds to purchase equipment, provide training and initiate programs not covered by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department's taxpayer-funded budget.

So far Hammond, who says creating "a sustainable foundation" by the time he retires is a primary goal, has raised about $150,000. If a fundraising luncheon in November is successful, the sheriff plans to employ a dedicated fundraiser for the foundation to bring in even bigger bucks.

These foundations have become a common way for sheriff's departments and police forces across the United States to improve skills and services at no additional cost to the public at large.

Naturally, there are concerns about favoritism that arise any time private dollars are donated at the request of a top law enforcement official - and this being Chattanooga, those concerns are amplified. Overall, however, sheriff's foundations generally benefit both to law enforcement officials and the people they serve.

While the Hamilton County Sheriff's Foundation may one day be a positive force for the county, one of the nifty new gadgets Sheriff Hammond plans to purchase with the foundation's money is, if used improperly, a chilling threat to privacy and individual liberty.

Hammond hopes to buy a number of Automatic License Plate Readers through the foundation. The license plate readers are automatic cameras that can be mounted on telephone poles, under bridges and on the hoods of police patrol cars. The majority of license plate readers, however, are mobile, snapping photos at a rate of 3,000 plates per hour from inside a police cruiser. The readers then send all information to a database managed by the state or local police department.

There are plenty of success stories. For example, the Tennessee Highway Patrol uses their 24 readers to regularly reacquire stolen vehicles and arrest wanted criminals.

So what's the problem? The readers are a threat to privacy.

Since the readers make a record of where and when a car is spotted, they can be used to monitor the activities and the whereabouts of individual drivers.

Once prohibitively expensive, in recent months the price of the plate readers has fallen from $24,000 to about $7,000 each. That means license plate readers are becoming a more common tool for law enforcement. As a result, as more readers invade out streets and parking lots, it will be much easier to follow the movements of a given driver.

The license plate readers store information from every license plate they process, whether it's the license plate of a criminal on the run or an innocent citizen minding his business. This creates a sort of GPS network, potentially tracking all drivers through an overwhelming detailed and sophisticated government surveillance database.

Used improperly, the license plate readers are a troubling example of Big Brother gone wild.

If the database of license plates captured by the readers becomes publicly available or falls into the wrong hands, it creates even more problems. For example, it could make it much easier for stalkers to follow their victims.

A reasonable solution exists. Because of the functionality of license plate readers to law enforcement officials, a ban on the use of these devices is unlikely. But their unrestricted use is dangerous and a violation of privacy. Of the thirty-eight states using this technology, only two have policies restricting their use. That needs to change.

Tennessee - and Hamilton County, if the sheriff's foundation is successful in purchasing the readers - can learn from the examples of Maine and New Hampshire. These states require that their license plate reader databases are entirely erased at the end of every month and limit the location that license plate readers may be used to highway bridges. Both solutions enable police departments to do their job while also ensuring a greater degree of individual privacy.

If drivers' locations are not stored for more than a month and the license plate readers are limited in their scope of use, the privacy of citizens can be protected while taking advantage of this valuable tool in fighting crime.