Separating Fact From Fiction

A new vehicle identification technology can help protect campus security; here’s how it really works

HAVE YOU EVER SEEN A CAR WITH A FUNNY VANITY PLATE AND MADE A MENTAL NOTE TO TELL A FRIEND ABOUT IT—OR EVEN TAKEN A PHOTO OF IT?

If you have, don’t worry—you’re not going to get in trouble. Because they are located in the public realm, license plates don’t carry any personal information that could violate someone’s privacy—in fact, the only reason they exist is to help identify vehicles, not people.

With more than 250 million passenger vehicles on the road in the United States—many of them the exact same color, make, model and year—license plates are critical to ensuring the right vehicle can be identified when it counts.

To help streamline the vehicle identification process and better protect campus security, many universities are turning to a technology called automated license plate recognition (ALPR), which uses cameras— either stationary or mobile—to take photographs of license plates that pass within the camera’s field of view. The photographs are stamped the images with the date, time and location coordinates of where they were taken—just like any modern smartphone camera does.

These cameras capture publicly visible, publicly available information, automating a process that has been done manually for years: using a license plate to identify a vehicle. It just does it much, much more quickly.

If that sounds like a good thing to you, you’re right. But there are also misconceptions and misinformation that create a confusing picture about what ALPR really is and what it is not.

Here are two facts and one fiction about ALPR:

ALPR IS A FORCE FOR GOOD

Fact: Simply put, ALPR helps protect communities.

Law enforcement and security agencies use ALPR to help solve crimes, prevent crimes before they occur, and improve safety for officers and the communities they serve. The technology has helped solve literally thousands of cases—including planned terrorist attacks, child abductions, human trafficking, narcotics trafficking, rapes, homicides, and just about any other type of crime you can imagine. It has even helped exonerate suspects.

For police officers, ALPR gives real-time alerts in the field on vehicles of interest (e.g., stolen vehicles, vehicles involved in a crime, etc.). It can also help develop investigative leads for other crimes, which allows investigators to focus their efforts, solve cases more quickly and efficiently, and put bad guys behind bars before they commit future crimes.

On university property, ALPR cameras can quickly identify vehicles entering the campus that belong to persons of interest, allowing campus security to immediately alert law enforcement.

The cameras can detect when vehicles park in unauthorized lots or areas, sending instant notifications to parking enforcement (an added bonus is the revenue boost from handing out more parking tickets). It can act as access control to campus perimeters, and can detect suspicious movement patterns—even those happening just outside the cameras’ perimeter—such as excessive idling or circling, and send alerts to campus security or law enforcement.

ALPR DATA IS ANONYMOUS

Also a fact: ALPR cameras create an anonymous data record, containing the plate image, date, time and location coordinates. The records do not contain names or addresses. The only way to link personally identifiable information like a name, address or face to an anonymous data record is to obtain access to a state’s Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) database.

However, that access is highly protected. The Federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) governs the use of DMV data. Under DPPA, connecting an ALPR data record to personal data from DMV records for malicious or abusive reasons is strictly prohibited. Anyone abusing DPPA would face serious consequences, including stiff fines, possible termination, and/or criminal or civil actions, including prison.

ALPR VIOLATES PRIVACY

Is your personal lie detector going off? Because it should be: This is pure fiction.

ALPR does not violate an individual’s privacy, because it does not capture personally identifiable information.

The only elements in a license plate image captured by an ALPR system are the license plate number, a partial view of the car, the date and time, and the latitude/longitude—that’s it. This information is 100 percent publicly available—anyone with a smartphone can capture this same data.

This technology does nothing more than what security officers and law enforcement agents have been doing manually since the creation of the license plate: writing down or radioing in license plate numbers for checks against criminal databases or parking registrations. ALPR simply makes the process more efficient.

ALPR: A CRITICAL CAMPUS SECURITY TOOL

Vehicle identification is a critical aspect of protecting campus security; with so many vehicles—between students, faculty, visitors and more coming and going on campus every day—security personnel require the kind of constant situational awareness that ALPR cameras can create to better protect the campus community.

With ALPR, campus security personnel can know at any given time how many vehicles are on campus, where they are parked and to whom they are registered. Security personnel armed with this information can keep campuses safer and work more effectively with local law enforcement in the event of an incident, using 21st-century technology to make people’s lives safer and happier.

This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of CSLS.