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posted: 11/26/2013 9:29 AM

Editorial: Crime-fighting tool needs safeguards

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  • Local police departments across the country have amassed digital records of vehicles with a license plate using automated scanners.

    Local police departments across the country have amassed digital records of vehicles with a license plate using automated scanners.

The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Mundelein police recently unveiled a high-tech crime fighting tool that has civil rights advocates crying Orwellian foul.

The debate is over the new license plate recognition system of cameras that automatically scans auto tags and runs the images through local, state and federal databases. Plates are scanned on moving and parked vehicles, all without the patrol officer making a keystroke.

The system in one squad car can scan as many as 1,000 plates in a single eight-hour shift, compared with the 50 to 100 plate numbers an officer can check manually in the same time.

While police say that reach can help them stop a variety of lawbreakers, from car thieves to kidnappers whose cars have been described in Amber Alert bulletins, opponents argue it presents a very real potential for spying on residents and building huge databases about them.

"The government has developed the power to, if they want to, know where everybody is and what they're doing," Adam Schwartz, a senior lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, told the Daily Herald's Russell Lissau. "We find the existence of (these databases) to be very ominous."

We share his concerns and call on the departments with such capabilities now and those embracing the technology in the future to write strong policies with specific safeguards to protect citizens from abuse.

They should define proper use of the equipment, identify with whom it can be shared and set reasonable limits on how long any data will be kept by authorities.

It is an issue raising concerns nationally as more police departments buy the equipment. Locally, Schaumburg police announced a similar purchase in May, and Skokie police started using the cameras last year.

While we recognize the benefits such technology brings, the potential threat of its unchecked use is no less apparent.

For example, such automated systems could be used by a local police department to determine who is parked outside political rallies, controversial plays, religious services and countless other gatherings.

True, such spying can be done now, but not with this kind of speed and efficiency.

Of even greater concern to many opponents is how long police would keep the reams of data the systems will gather each day.

Mundelein police have said they would expect to keep the data no more than six months, which is less than many departments, experts say.

But Schwartz and others contend even that is too long. They argue such data should be deleted immediately if the scan doesn't trigger an alert.

If we've learned anything about living in an open society, it's the importance of striking a balance between providing safety and protecting personal freedoms and privacy.

Authorities always should keep that distinction in mind as they consider using this technology.

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