License Plate Recognition and Privacy: What You Need to Know

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ALPR data privacy concerns

Automatic license plate recognition (ALPR) has been under scrutiny from privacy watchdogs for years. Concerns range from capturing the vehicle information of people not involved in criminal activity, to ensuring the information isn’t used illegally (or at least illicitly), to determining whether the data is being retained and/or resold – and by whom. All are valid concerns – ones that PlateSmart has taken seriously since the beginning. We’ve built a commitment to privacy into our company as well as our products.

Questions Consumers Ask About Privacy and ALPR

As with many technologies, much misinformation exists about ALPR. This leads to a variety of questions from consumers – those who are driving the vehicles that are being seen by ALPR.

Is ALPR Legal?

Yes, it is legal. It is a tool often used by law enforcement agencies. In a report published in 2015, the U.S Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics said that in 2013, 77% of police departments in communities of 500,000 people or more used ALPR technology.

Private companies also make use of ALPR on their properties. They are used for everything from automatically notifying security if a disgruntled former employee arrives on the premises to helping retailers identify those involved in organized retail crime, which in 2020 cost retailers about $700,000 for every $1 billion in sales according to the National Retail Federation.

How Long Does Law Enforcement Story My Information?

Typically, law enforcement will only store license plate information long enough to close an open case or to use as evidence at trial. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 16 states currently have statutes specific to the use of ALPR and the retention of data. The best way to be sure is to contact your local police department and ask.

Can Law Enforcement Track My Movements with ALPR?

The simple answer is yes, as that’s how police use ALPR to find and apprehend suspects, but it isn’t as practical as you might think. First, it’s important to remember that law enforcement is interested in criminal activity. Thus, they are focused on monitoring where and when suspect vehicles are identified so they can make an arrest. Furthermore, the aforementioned retention policies mean that data about your vehicle has a relatively short shelf life.

Finally, given that police departments are and have been chronically understaffed, it’s reasonable to assume that honest police officers don’t have much time for tracking innocent citizens. However, as you will see, PlateSmart ALPR software has tools in place to ensure that misuse can be identified quickly.

PlateSmart Lets You Monitor and Enforce Access via Comprehensive Auditing

Privacy advocates often express concern that ALPR could be misused by the very organizations or agencies using it. For example, those personnel could surreptitiously access the system for personal gain or for nefarious purposes, such as spying on a family member or stalking a love interest.

To address this issue, PlateSmart ARES® 3.0 enterprise-grade ALPR software allows administrators to limit access to authorized personnel only. Even better, though, is the software’s comprehensive auditing feature that allows administrators to review who has accessed the tool and how they have used it:

  • See who has logged in and out of ARES 3.0 and when.
  • Know when a login attempt has failed, so you can investigate possible unauthorized activity.
  • Identify what a user was searching for and when.
  • Determine if a user has altered any system configurations, including access privileges, watchlist settings, notification methods, and more.
  • Print and export audit details for further sharing and analysis.

By auditing access, not only can administrators ensure that access is limited to authorized users but they can answer any question that arises regarding who is using the ALPR software and for what.

The Data Belongs to the Customer – PlateSmart Neither Touches nor Resells It

Why are privacy advocates concerned that innocent citizens have their license plate and vehicle data captured by law enforcement authorities that use ALPR? Primarily, it’s because there are ALPR providers who themselves aggregate that data and later sell it to other third parties. If that sounds underhanded to you, please know that PlateSmart heartily agrees. It’s a practice that the company has been very vocally opposed to for many years, for a few reasons:

  • The search for persons of interest in a police investigation does result in the capture of a lot of vehicle information for a lot of innocent people – people who did nothing other than being out and about. Their vehicle information should not fall into the hands of any organization that might use it for who knows what purpose.
  • Companies selling vehicle data often choose not to purge old data. Instead, they grow their databases by continually adding to them. That old data might no longer even be accurate. Thus, it should not be provided to anyone under any circumstances.
  • Resellers of vehicle data are notoriously tight-lipped about where the data is stored and who had access to it. That makes the integrity of the data itself suspect. Is it being viewed by authorized personnel? Can the access be audited? Might the data have been altered at some point? Might it be at risk for theft? These remain valid concerns.

For these reasons, PlateSmart never touches a customer’s data. That means PlateSmart has no way of aggregating it even if we wanted to resell it, which we don’t. The data belongs to the customer, period.

A Final Word About Data Retention

Unfortunately, PlateSmart cannot control how long vehicle images and related data are retained by the user. However, as you’ve read, many states have regulations in place that address this. Typically, it means that after the close of an investigation by law enforcement, the data must be purged within a given timeframe. Typically, it’s a short period of time akin to 90 days, but it does vary across jurisdictions.

While such regulations do not often address how long private organizations can retain the data, PlateSmart encourages its clients to develop a retention policy that is reasonable and as unintrusive as possible regarding privacy.

In any event, PlateSmart ARES has retention policy features that allow data to be purged after it has been retained for a particular period.

What is the lesson PlateSmart hopes you take away from this discussion? In short, do your homework on privacy concerns before you choose an ALPR provider. Even if you choose not to work with PlateSmart, please do work with an ethical company of high integrity.

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