Lawmaker says license plate readers a privacy threat

By Mark Fitton
Illinois News Network

SPRINGFIELD — Imagine a police officer, other government official or even a private vendor typing in your license plate number and finding out where you have driven for the last year.

Within keystrokes, that person learns where you’ve been to church, with whom you’ve done business, where you go to relax, what you like to do on the weekends.

The technology is already out there and, to a degree, in use by the government, says a suburban lawmaker who wants to limit the use of an emergent technology: automated license plate readers.

State Rep. Peter Breen, R-Lombard, says he doesn’t want to take a useful tool away from police, but the tremendous data gathering, storage and networking ability associated with the automated plate readers has to be regulated so as not to be misused.

“Each individual (license plate reader) can grab thousands of license plates per hour,” Breen said. “You can imagine that if you deploy those readers across your city, that essentially becomes a tracking mechanism for any citizen of that city who travels in an automobile.”

Breen’s bill, HB 3289, would limit government use of the readers — mobile or stationary — to six categories: toll collection; traffic enforcement; parking enforcement; access to secured areas; criminal investigations and identifying vehicles connected to crimes or missing persons cases.

It would also require license plate data be kept for no more than 30 days without permission of the courts and forbid government agencies from selling license plate data to private companies.

State Sen. Tim Bivins, R-Dixon, was a 20-year sheriff of Lee County and said he understands the concerns about the automated readers.

And Bivins said he has given considerable thought to various proposals regarding the readers and the data they collect, as well as how long that data should be stored and who should have access to it.

But he also believes there’s a degree of overreaction to the use of automated license plate readers.

The former sheriff said police for decades have had access to license plate data via the radio and shared data banks and he noted in-car computer terminals are now the norm.

Bivins said officers always have made note of something as simple as an out-of-place car in police reports — which are retained for long periods — and that information often proves useful more than 30 days later in solving crimes ranging from burglary to murder.

And, he said, the total police workload compared to the limited number of working officers makes it “rare, rare, rare” that police are actually watching any given person on any given day.

“I can understand the concerns, but I also believe there’s a bit of a much ado about nothing here,” Bivins said.

But Breen says he’s less worried about use of the readers in the moment than he is the storage, mapping and networking of the data — and who accesses it and and to what end.

Breen said instances already have been noted in which plate readers were used to record who attended gun shows and mosques.

What’s next, Breen asked, government officials looking into who goes to a synagogue or a cathedral? Who frequents which businesses? Who goes to a Presbyterian or a Methodist church?

“We can allow police to use the most advanced technology in assisting them to apprehend criminals and bring wrongdoers to justice,” Breen said. “But we absolutely have to preserve individuals’ right to privacy and their ability to travel freely without worry about being tracked and having their movements or their political or religious affiliations cataloged somewhere in some large database.”

“What (my bill) does is attempt to balance the privacy interests of the almost 99.5 percent of us who are innocent and really shouldn’t be tracked by the government versus the … half-percent who are doing wrong in some way shape or form,” Breen said.

Breen said he has bipartisan support for the bill, on which he partnered with American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. His cosponsors include Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook; Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago; Rep. Keith Wheeler, R-Oswego; and Rep. Ron Sandack, R-Downers Grove.

The bill cleared a House judiciary committee on an 11-0 vote Wednesday morning and now goes to the full House.

The bill is opposed by organizations including the Chicago Police Department, Illinois State Police, Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and Illinois Sheriffs Association.

Attempts to get comment from the Illinois State Police and the chiefs’ group on Wednesday afternoon were not successful.

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