Law enforcement agencies are using high-tech cameras to scan thousands of license plates an hour in Illinois, gathering data they say can help solve crimes and enforce traffic laws. But some lawmakers and civil liberties advocates worry the technology could lead to illegal tracking of private citizens.
Those concerns have brought together an unlikely alliance: conservative Republican Rep. Peter Breen, a constitutional law attorney who helped defend Illinois’ same-sex marriage ban in 2012, and the American Civil Liberties Union, which helped fight Breen’s challenge.
Two of the metro-east’s state lawmakers — Democrat House member Jay Hoffman of Swansea and Republican House member Dwight Kay of Glen Carbon — have already voted in favor of the bill at the committee level. At least two local police agencies, including Belleville Police Department, have made use of the automated license-plate readers, which use technology to gobble up data on motorists’ vehicles.
With the ACLU’s backing, Breen has introduced legislation that would limit government use of automatic license-plate readers and impose a 30-day limit on data collected. The bill, which has bipartisan support, also would prevent government agencies from selling the data to private companies.
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“Privacy tends to be the least partisan and least ideological issue on the spectrum today,” ACLU spokesman Ed Yohnka said.
Yohnka said police have used license plate readers outside gun shows and mosques, suggesting there is opportunity for abuse and “ideological or partisan reasons to capture the data.” Breen noted that such high-speed reading of license plates wasn’t available a few years ago, and that “they are collecting data and they are entirely unregulated.”
Police say concerns are overblown about the cameras, which are often mounted on squad cars or stationary objects. They argue that limiting how long data can be kept could hinder investigations into missing persons or other crimes that can take longer to solve.
“Sometimes you just don’t know someone is a suspect until well past 30 days,” said Ed Wojcicki, executive director of the Illinois Association of Police Chiefs.
When a camera scans a license plate, it takes a photo and feeds the information into a computer linked to various police databases, including those that have information on missing persons and arrest warrants, police say. The metadata associated with the scan – including location, time and day – can be kept indefinitely.
Breen and others worry that if there are enough cameras, police potentially could track a person’s movement from place to place.
Belleville Police purchased a $17,000 plate-reader in 2011 and mounted it on an unmarked police car. During one of the camera’s initial tests — covering a four-hour period — the camera scanned 926 license plates. During that test, the system picked up on 15 arrest warrants connected to those license plates.
At least one other local policy agency has used one of the plate-readers: the Metro-East Auto Theft Task Force. The agency is a collaboration of local police departments, aimed at reducing car thefts.
Nobody has an accurate accounting of how many departments use the scanners, but police say the technology is far more prevalent than the public believes. They say most new video cameras could be turned into a license plate scanner with the right software.
In Will County alone, at least three or four departments use them, said Fred Hayes, head of the Illinois Association of Police Chiefs and chief of the Elwood Police Department. Hayes said his department uses the readers because there is major freight logistics park in the village, but said the data is only used for relevant police investigations.
“Unfortunately, I think there is a misconception in the public that it’s being used to track people,” he said.
Breen’s measure unanimously passed the House committee last month, and has drawn support from both Democrats and Republicans. Hoffman and Kay serve on the House Civil Judiciary Committee, where they voted in favor of the bill. Hoffman and Kay could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday. The bill’s co-sponsors include Rep. John Cavaletto, R-Salem.
Opponents of the House bill include Chicago Police Department, Illinois State Police, Illinois Sheriffs Association and Illinois Association of Police Chiefs. Another opponent is TransUnion, a credit-reporting agency.
A similar measure is pending in the Senate.
Five states passed laws last year to regulate the use of data collected by the readers, while lawmakers in 14 states – including Illinois, Indiana and Missoui – are considering similar measures.
The bill is HB3829.