Scott Johnson

This morning I read with interest a story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about a neighborhood in the Hennepin County suburb of Plymouth. The residents banned together and purchased license plate reader cameras to be placed on their neighborhood streets to record license plate numbers of vehicles driving through. They contracted with an Atlanta based company to provide the readers and store the license plate numbers. There had been a number of mail thefts in their neighborhood. Apparently, they are not the first to do so as the article reports that neighborhoods in thirty-eight states have done the same. The goal is to provide police with information needed to solve crime, which in turn deters crime.

Thefts of mail typically consist of two types, theft of packages from porches and theft of checks from mailboxes. Over the course of the last four months, Grand Rapids Police Officers, Itasca County Sheriff’s Deputies and Minnesota State Patrol Troopers have made a number of arrests of people that are loosely associated with each other who are “Washing Checks” presumably to get money to buy drugs. They steal checks out of mailboxes, and through a chemical process erase the written ink on the checks, replacing it with their own verbiage, and then try to cash them. This is a good reason not to place a check in the mailbox outside your house.

Camera license plate reader technology has been around for over 20 years. In certain cities, you might see some police cars that have an array of cameras mounted on them, usually on the trunk. They are recording, running and storing license plate numbers of all vehicles around them. They are searching for stolen cars and vehicles whose owners have arrest warrants.

I think the goal of the Plymouth residents is admirable and the use of the technology to solve and prevent crime will probably be very effective. Not every neighborhood may agree with the use of this technology as it raises a number of issues. “Do people want government to know where they are driving?” “Who is collecting this information and where is it being stored?” “How will this information be used?”

When police departments collect license plate data in this manner there are state laws about how the data can be used and limits on storage duration. In this instance, a private company is collecting and storing information. Do the same rules apply to the private sector as the public sector?

What has been described is just one type of data that may be collected and used to help solve crimes. There is also a program marketed to law enforcement agencies, which gathers video from doorbell cameras. One manufacturer that markets these doorbells started a program encouraging police departments across the United States to participate. It provides police access to residents’ doorbell cameras. Again, the goal is admirable but are citizens willing to allow a private entity to store this data and government to access it? In some neighborhoods, the answer may be “Yes.” In others it may not be. Amazon recently purchased this company.

Maybe it doesn’t make much difference. After all, we are a society that posts the most telling information and photos about ourselves on social media. We know that internet companies track which sites we are searching and how frequently, using this information to market goods to us. We don’t often think about it but we are being recorded a lot more than we realize and in many places such as on our interstate highways and while shopping within stores.

In the end, the appropriate use of technology is a social policy question concerning liberty, how information should be used and to what degree we will tolerate the invasion of our privacy for a public good. What might be acceptable in one neighborhood or community may not be in another. For these Plymouth residents, the trade off in privacy is worth it. As for the Grand Rapids Police Department, we do not believe these decisions should be made without community dialogue and have no plans soon to place license plate readers on squad cars or on street corners.

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