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EDITORIAL: The All-Seeing Eye

8/27/2014, 3 p.m.
The City of Greenbelt recently joined a growing number of municipalities that plan or have already installed automated license plate ...
Courtesy of princegeorgescountymd.gov

The City of Greenbelt recently joined a growing number of municipalities that plan or have already installed automated license plate readers. The mounted reader, which is capable of scanning 1,000 license plates a second, will operate 24 hours a day.

During discussion about approving an almost $20,000 grant, Mayor Emmett Jordan and Mayor Pro Tem Judith Davis focused on the reader’s ability to help fight crime by identifying stolen vehicles or drivers with drugs, or outstanding tickets and warrants, but civil libertarians and privacy rights advocates have raised concerns about the potential for abuse and invasion of privacy.

Although the technology is relatively new, about 70 percent of America’s police departments use these readers mounted on the back of their cars. The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups are worried that this type of surveillance can be used by police to track the movements of law-abiding citizens and there are also qualms about violations of privacy of ordinary citizens when police departments hold onto information about drivers’ locations and license plate numbers for more than 30 days.

The Greenbelt Police Department is one of those police agencies which sends its data to the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center, which stores the information for a year. The Center for Investigative Reporting conducted a 2012 investigation which indicated that California-based Vigilant Solutions, a private manufacturer of license plate recognition systems, has been storing its own license plate reader information in an enormous national database called the National Vehicle Location Service. This service isn’t governed by the few privacy regulations public and government agencies use. And furthermore, the report noted, Vigilant Solutions sells drivers’ data to police which has created a loophole the company uses to sidestep the limited regulations that exist to protect people from improper, retroactive police spying.

Anyone troubled about the unwarranted intrusion into our lives by various arms of the government should be uneasy about the continued erosion of our privacy. Despite assurances to the contrary, we hope Greenbelt residents will keep pressure on city officials to have appropriate checks and balances in place to eliminate any possibility of the abuse or mishandling of this data.