Editorial: Controls needed for license readers

Published Jul 20, 2013 at 05:00AM

Technology has a way of getting ahead of the human ability to understand its implications and deal with them before they become a problem. It’s an age-old problem, surely, and it’s surfaced once again.

This time it’s government’s ability to collect and store information about the people it serves, either by tracking telephone calls — think National Security Agency — or tracking cars through the use of special license plate readers.

Although tracking has not become standard practice in all communities, the questions the practice raises are better off answered before it becomes routine.

License plate readers, whether stationary or mounted on or in a car, automatically read hundreds of license plates per minute and check them against vehicle databases, according to the website PoliceOne.com. The city of Portland uses them; Oregon State Police do not. Nor do the city of Bend or the Deschutes County Sheriff.

Having all that information at your fingertips can be a wonderful thing for police, no doubt. Police can track the cars of murder victims, track the movements of drug dealers and so on. In so doing, however, they can end up tracking the movements of just plain folks at the same time.

Moreover, they can store the information they gather, sometimes for years, according to an Associated Press story that appeared in The Bulletin on Thursday. According to the AP, just two cameras in Minneapolis recorded data from 4.9 million license plates from January to August of last year. Fortunately, if that data was collected by the Minnesota state police, it was deleted just 48 hours later.

Residents of most communities are not so lucky. Some places keep information indefinitely, while others keep it a matter of weeks, months or years.

Use of the devices, even by private citizens or businesses, is largely unregulated, unfortunately. You could get one tomorrow on the Internet, and you or the police, if they use the cameras, could keep the information you gather forever.

Americans, including Oregonians, give away plenty of information about themselves willingly. That’s their choice. Police and others, however, should not be able to collect it simply because they can and then keep it indefinitely.

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