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Article updated: 11/3/2013 12:53 PM

Mundelein police cameras to automatically scan license plates

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Mundelein police are adding a new piece of sophisticated -- but controversial -- investigative equipment to their inventory.

Called an automated license plate recognition system, the gear scans auto tags and runs the images through local, state and federal databases. They run on their own, allowing officers to focus on driving and other tasks, proponents say.

"This allows the officer to scan hundreds of plates without ever having to make one keystroke," Mundelein Police Chief Eric Guenther told the Daily Herald.

The equipment could help police stop a variety of lawbreakers, from people driving with suspended licenses to kidnappers whose cars have been described in Amber Alert bulletins, Guenther said.

But civil rights advocates have raised concerns about the cameras, particularly how the data they gather is stored and used.

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

Mundelein's system is set to be installed in one squad car in early December. It will be among the first suburbs to acquire the gear.

Schaumburg police announced a similar purchase in May, while Skokie police started using the cameras last year.

Mundelein's system will consist of four digital cameras and an onboard computer. The infrared equipment can scan plates on vehicles that are parked or moving in traffic.

Typically, the cameras silently scan license plates as an officer drives through town. When the system discovers a plate tied to a type of crime on a list programmed by the department, it will alert the officer and show photos of the plate and the front or back of the vehicle.

It also will identify where the vehicle was spotted.

Mundelein police tested systems from three vendors. They opted for one produced by 3M, the same company that makes Scotch tape, Post-it Notes and other household products.

Trustees approved the $20,689 purchase in September. Money in a special DUI-related account will cover the cost.

Using the automated system, police should be able to scan as many as 1,000 plates in a typical eight-hour shift, Guenther said. In comparison, an officer manually typing in plate numbers can check between 50 and 100 plates during a shift, he said.

If the equipment is active 24 hours a day as Guenther intends, that could mean 3,000 plates checked daily instead of 150 to 300.

"It really does improve our efficiency," he said.

They may be efficient, but the systems also can be used by the government to spy on us, the ACLU's Schwartz said.

He's less concerned about abuse from a group like the National Security Agency than from a local police department that could use the cameras to determine who's parked outside political rallies, controversial plays, religious services or countless other gatherings.

When it comes to potential for abuse, Schwartz puts the recognition systems in the same category as cellphone tracking software and surveillance drones.

"We view them as a potential intrusion on locational privacy," he said.

Schwartz isn't being paranoid. According to the ACLU and media reports, some police departments store license plate scans for years, creating tremendous databases.

Mundelein Trustee Holly Kim was the only member of her board to vote against the purchase. Storage time was a sticking point for her.

"There's a difference between keeping it two weeks ... and keeping it two years," she said.

Kim also is concerned about whether the data Mundelein collects will be shared nationally.

"There's a part of me that's fundamentally against red-light cameras and license plate scanners, not only for privacy but also for government overreach," Kim said.

Guenther expects the department will keep plate data no longer than six months. That's shorter than most other departments that use the recognition systems, he said.

It's still far too long for the ACLU's Schwartz, who said license plate data should be deleted immediately if a scan doesn't trigger an alert.

"The government should have no record that (a) clean person went by," he said.

Guenther believes a well-written policy that limits data retention and access should help prevent the potential privacy abuses that worry Kim and the ACLU.

"I think the key to this is remember that collecting the data attached to a license plate by means of automation is no different than when collected by the officer," Guenther said. "It is simply done at a greater speed and in greater quantity, with greater accuracy and completely (at) random."

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