Civil rights experts provide clarity on how automatic license plate readers could affect your privacy rights

Published: Jan. 24, 2023 at 10:55 PM CST
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QUINCY (WGEM) - The Quincy Police Department is proposing the installation of automatic license plate readers throughout the city, in locations like the bridges entering and exiting the city and along Broadway.

Monday night, the police department hosted a public presentation to address a number of questions about how will this technology could affect people’s privacy rights.

The Quincy Police Chief said the cameras will capture photo identifiers of your vehicle as leads to their investigations of stolen vehicles and other crimes.

“Currently there are no regulations on the use of these systems in the state of Illinois,” Illinois American Civil Liberties Union Director of Communication and Public Policies Ed Yohnka said.

Yohnka said installing the cameras isn’t innately a violation of the constitution. However he said, it creates room for concern, like who will have access to the data, how long will the photos last and who monitors in privacy policies are being violated.

Chief Adam Yates said the photos would be owned by the City of Quincy and not sold off to other parties.

A spoken person for the Flock company, who the city is looking to lease the cameras from, said their company policy deletes the photos every 30 days and under no circumstance will that number increase.

“The important thing to remember here is this is really a very powerful surveillance system. If I know where you go in your car, if I know where you travel at any given moment, I know a lot about you,” Yohnka said.

Associate Attorney Erin Wilson Laegeler said the question becomes, “At what cost is this surveillance, to your civil liberties and freedoms?”

“On the one hand we have a long history of supreme court precedent holding that things that you put out to the public, such as your license plate are not protected. There’s no expectation of privacy in that because you put it out there in the public,” Wilson Laegeler.

She said on the other hand, like in the 2018 Supreme Court case of Carpenter versus The United States, the Supreme Court held that police needed a search warrant to access an individual’s location log.

“There are similarities between the information that was issued in Carpenter and the information that would be gathered by automatic license plate readers,” Wilson Laegeler.

Yohnka said there are steps the police department should take to ensure privacy policies are in place, like holding public audits every six months to review if those policies have been violated.

He said another concern arises. He said even if the Quincy Police Department puts in place a vigorous and diligent privacy policy, he questioned what keeps other jurisdictions from not accessing Quincy data in their investigation and putting Quincy residents at risk.

“If jurisdiction B does not have that privacy policy, then jurisdiction A doesn’t really enjoy any of the protections that they sought to put in place in the first instance,” Yohnka said.

And if the cameras are in fact helping to reduce crime.

“Maybe the thing is that the camera system poses too many threats to privacy without any intended benefit and so the thing is not to have that system,” Yohnka said. “Those are some of the things I think a community ought to think about and frankly ought to have a public open transparent debate about before such a system is implemented.”

This conversation continues Wednesday night. The Quincy Police Department will host a second public meeting at the Quincy Town Center at 6 p.m.

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