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Op-ed: Utah can have its security and privacy too

Published April 5, 2014 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

For more than a century, police officers used license plate data to solve investigations. While the technology behind that process has changed, the underlying act remains the same, only now it's the subject of a national debate that reached its boiling point in Utah.

How the issue gets resolved will have major ramifications not just for Utah citizens, but for privacy and public safety nationwide.

This month, the Utah Legislature partially righted a wrong by reversing the unconstitutional prohibitions in a bill originally authored by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross. Weiler's bill had banned the private collection of license plate data.

The legislative reversal is a direct result of our First Amendment lawsuit. We argued that Weiler's original law infringed on our First Amendment right to take photographs in public places, a right that everyone in Utah shares. We are certainly happy that lawmakers have taken a step in the right direction, but the revision still falls short of offering a solution that protects both privacy and public safety.

Our First Amendment argument is clear, supported by precedent, and compelling enough that the authors of the original law are more interested in changing it than arguing its merits before a judge. But rather than fix the flawed concept at the legislation's core, they seem content to massage the language until it can narrowly pass constitutional muster.

Private collection of licence plate recognition data happens the same way as law enforcement collection. Cameras take photographs of license plates in public view and log time and location. This data is then put into a database with access controls governed by a strict, federal privacy law — the Driver's Privacy Protection Act (DPPA).

Nationally, law enforcement access to this data has helped to solve thousands of abductions, murders and assaults. The use by private industry has recovered billions of dollars worth of defaulted and stolen automobiles.

License plate recognition technology has fallen victim in the past year to a misleading but effective national smear campaign orchestrated by the American Civil Liberties Union.

It's just too bad that the ACLU's Big Brother fantasy is so far from the truth.

LPR does not track or surveil people. The pictures that the cameras take are of license plate numbers, which are public and don't contain any personal information.

The vast majority of anonymous license plates photographed by these cameras are never connected to a driver's personal information.

Only authorized agents can link the plate images to DMV records under a narrow set of permitted purposes under the DPPA. Anyone who connects plate data to a driver's record outside of those purposes is already committing a federal crime.

The value of those very few license plates that are eventually linked to DMV data can be enormous. In a 2013 national poll of law enforcement officers, more than 90 percent said that LPR has helped solve major crimes, and more than 60 percent credited the technology with saving lives.

These are real societal benefits that shouldn't be discarded.

Can we do more to protect against misuses of LPR data? Of course, we can.

But, there is a way to prevent misuse without eliminating legitimate uses of the technology. Increased data protection and aggressive auditing of license plate database access could eliminate unwarranted privacy violations, without impacting the legitimate benefits of LPR data.

We encourage the legislature to continue improving its LPR legislation to find a solution that we all want: a law that protects Utah citizens' safety, as well as their privacy.

Todd Hodnett is the founder and chairman of Digital Recognition Network, a company that sells license plate recognition technology.