By John Chigos, CEO, PlateSmart Technologies
With the COVID-19 outbreak officially declared a pandemic, CBS News reported World Health Organization (WHO) Director Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as saying, “All countries can still change the course of this pandemic. If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace and mobilize their people in the response.”
One word of that statement stood out in particular for me: trace.
Safety is on everyone’s mind regarding COVID-19, and I’m no exception. As I monitor the pandemic, I’m thinking of the health and wellbeing of family, friends and employees alike. Keeping people safe from the novel coronavirus in part means knowing where it is going so that local communities can be prepared. In making that determination, it’s helpful to know where the virus has been. And I believe that one way to do that is via ALPR (automatic license plate recognition) implemented as part of a citywide surveillance solution.
After identifying someone who tests positive for COVID-19, health officials — in cooperation with local law enforcement — could search for the patient’s license plate in the days preceding the diagnosis. The locations of the cameras capturing the plate could provide some indication of where the patient had been.
However, I realize that privacy related to ALPR and the surveillance of innocent civilians is an ongoing concern. In my opinion, authorities need not store or access vehicle data for any extended period of time in order to gain insights into the spread of a disease. That’s because the Federal Highway Administration estimates that the average American driver logs about 37 miles a day. So even if authorities access only a day’s worth of ALPR data, they should be able to see enough of a patient’s movements to help them predict where and how the infection will spread. It just gives them more actionable data to use in decision-making.
Regarding ALPR and privacy, I have been an outspoken advocate for the maintenance of privacy as it relates to ALPR. PlateSmart doesn’t access, aggregate, share or sell any of the vehicle data our software compiles. In our opinion, that’s how it should always be. And we continue to advocate for strict written, transparent guidelines about how long the data can be stored by a customer and who can access it.
Another use of license plate recognition in a public health emergency is monitoring ingress and egress of “hot” zones or quarantine zones. In areas where there are many people who have tested positive for coronavirus, ALPR can be used to see who is coming and going. For instance, since the technology can identify the state jurisdiction as well as the vehicle license plate, authorities monitoring traffic can draw some conclusions about where visitors reside and the likelihood of the virus moving to those locations. This is especially useful in cities like New York and Washington, D.C. that see regular traffic from surrounding states.
Given the current situation with COVID-19, I’m particularly glad that PlateSmart is a provider of software-only ALPR solutions. That means our employees need not travel to customer sites for installation, training, and maintenance of the company’s solutions, thus limiting social contact and hopefully keeping everyone safer. We are doing our part to minimize the spread of COVID-19 by taking advantage of our inherent strengths to limit clients and employees to potential exposure.