Bill to strike balance between privacy and security

License plate readers a growing concern
Thursday, October 3, 2013

The following is an editorial written by State Representative Tom Cochran (D-Mason). If you have questions about this commentary, please contact Rep. Cochran’s office by calling (517) 373-0587.

In the age of Big Data, it has become much easier for all sorts of organizations, such as businesses, social media websites, and government, to collect large amounts of information about consumers. Sometimes such data collection can raise concerns about the privacy of American citizens. As the debate over Federal intelligence surveillance programs shows, Americans feel very strongly about their right to privacy. As public officials, it is of critical importance that we allow law enforcement the tools to do their job while protecting citizens from unnecessary intrusion.

A recently introduced bill seeks to strike that balance between security and privacy. More and more police agencies in the State of Michigan are using license plate readers as a means to more effectively and efficiently fight crime. License plate readers are typically mounted on the front of patrol vehicles and use high speed cameras with accompanying software to read passing license plates that the naked eye would otherwise not be able to detect. The software then cross-references the plate numbers against a “hot list”, and if the numbers match the officer will be alerted and can pursue the suspect. I certainly understand the importance of these readers in aiding law enforcement agencies in their pursuit of criminals, but I also believe certain protections should be in place to ensure the privacy rights of Michigan’s citizens are not being violated.

That said, I am proud to have co-sponsored at piece of legislation that aims to do just that. House Bill 4981, introduced by Representative Sam Singh (D- East Lansing), would regulate the use of license plate readers in the State of Michigan. Specifically the bill would:

• Regulate under what circumstances LPRs can be used

• Reserve any data retained for official law enforcement purposes only

• Require training and policies to be in effect at law enforcement agencies that elect to use the technology

• Allow the Office of the Attorney General to ban the use of LPRs at agencies found to be in violation of the bill

• Mandate that license plate records collected by LPRs be deleted from data systems within 48 hours after they were collected unless the record is evidence of specific criminal wrongdoing or being used in an ongoing case

These common sense measures will still allow for all the public safety benefits of license plate readers while also protecting the reasonable expectations for personal privacy. Public safety officials will have the tools necessary to find and bring criminals to justice while everyone else can rest assured that their rights are being respected. The bill will also make the process more transparent and implement clear accountability measures to guarantee that any collected information is treated with appropriate sensitivity. I am glad to have the opportunity to support a bill that maintains the ability to preserve law and order while respecting the integrity of individuals’ privacy.