Much like facial recognition technology, automated license plate readers are becoming a popular new tool of law enforcement.

And, like facial recognition, the use of plate readers has developed faster than the regulations governing their use, meaning there are no consistent limits on the technology and its application. That has opened the door for potential misuse that threatens both privacy and due process.

Developed about 10 years ago, the popularity of license plate readers has been rising in the past two years. They have been deployed by the hundreds across Pennsylvania and by the thousands across the country, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital privacy nonprofit.

License plate readers are typically mounted in police cars or on stationary objects like bridges or road signs. They use high-speed cameras to capture thousands of license plates per minute. The readers automatically run each plate through a state database, checking for violations or warrants related to the vehicle. Police officers are alerted to such matters as an unpaid fine to outstanding warrants.

Where is the due process? Historically, police need probable cause to pull over a person and to run a check on his or her plates.

Authorities can cast this broad net using the same legal rationale that is used for a DUI checkpoint: Everyone is subject to the same level of scrutiny.

But, the massive scope of this information-collecting technology pushes the practice into new and concerning circles.

Then there’s this question: What becomes of all that information — the photos, geolocation information and database checks? Local policies vary with communities setting their own standards for where the information is stored, who has access to it, how long it is stored and how it is used.

Some communities in Pennsylvania have set their own standards for the use and storage of data collected by the readers. For example, some municipalities store data for days, others for months.

House Bill 317, proposed recently by state Rep. Greg Rothman, R-Cumberland County would set statewide rules and regulations that would lend consistency in the use, storage and access of information collected from automatic license plate readers. Mr. Rothman proposed a similar bill last year that was passed by the House, but it died in the Senate.

HB 317 moves in the right direction but not quite to where it needs to be. For example, it proposes that municipalities be allowed to store data collected by the readers for a year before it must be purged. This is too long. A better model is Allegheny County, which stores the information for just 10 days.

The threat to civil liberties is plain: Drivers are being documented and meticulously analyzed by police equipment without their knowledge or their consent, without probable cause or due process. It is done in the name of community safety, convenience and economies. But at what cost?

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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