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License plate cameras help solve crimes, but are creating a backlash over privacy concerns

Robert McCoppin, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

CHICAGO — In 2022, a teenager accused of fatally shooting a young mother in the back of the head in Morris was caught driving a stolen car with the help of a license plate camera.

That same year, a man wanted for a slaying in Maywood was arrested in Northbrook after police traced his car there through license plate cameras. The man had previously been released after serving time for a 1994 murder.

Earlier this year, after a woman escaped from being abducted, police were able to track down the vehicle in Waukegan and charged the suspect with kidnapping.

Automated license plate recognition, known as ALPRs, have helped police arrest suspects for a number of heinous crimes in the Chicago area. But they don’t just track criminals. They track everyone in their sight, marking each car’s location, when it is first detected by a camera and in what direction it’s heading — billions of license plates nationwide.

Alarmed by the reach and rapid expansion of these cameras, privacy advocates have filed suit in Illinois, saying the cameras violate the Constitution’s protections against unreasonable search. They say it amounts to a national surveillance system of innocent drivers.

“This system has brought Big Brother to Illinois,” said plaintiff Stephanie Scholl of Chicago. “That isn’t a reasonable security measure — it’s a dystopia playing out in real time, in our backyards.”

The cameras, mounted on poles or on police cars, can automatically take photos of every passing vehicle, logging the plate number, GPS position, time, direction, and in some cases the make and model, and possibly the occupants.

The information is then run through a list of “hot plates” from the FBI, state and local police, wanted as stolen or for other crimes, or for Amber Alerts or missing persons. Police typically pay private companies to install the cameras, pay for operations and maintenance, and must agree to share their photos with the provider to get access to data nationwide.

State police say the cameras are not used for petty crimes such as speeding, which is done in Chicago and some other places with another set of cameras.

Critics are concerned that the networks could be misused, as when police have stalked ex-wives or romantic rivals by tracing their plates, or when the wrong vehicles are mistakenly pulled over.

In the Chicago area, the impetus for the license cameras was driven in part by a rash of expressway shootings. In 2019, in response to postal worker Tamara Clayton being shot and killed on Interstate 57, lawmakers passed a law with $12 million to install the cameras on every expressway in Cook County.

In 2022, Gov. J.B. Pritzker expanded that authorization for $20 million to expand into 21 more counties, including tollways. There are now more than 300 cameras statewide.

Since the cameras were installed, the number of shootings on the expressways has decreased dramatically. From a peak of 310 such shootings in 2021, the number dropped almost in half in 2022, and another 32% in 2023. The rate of shootings is down again this year, while the number of arrests, gun seizures, and recovered carjacked or stolen cars has increased significantly.

State police credited the cameras, along with other measures, for helping reduce shootings, and said the information is only used for law enforcement. They also created a transparency page to address questions about the cameras.

Jeffrey Schwab, one of the attorneys who filed suit challenging the cameras, noting that there were far fewer shootings in 2019, before the cameras were installed, than in 2022 or 2023. Shootings have come down nationally since a record high in 2021.

The statistics don’t show that the cameras themselves were effective at reducing the number of shootings on Illinois expressways, Schwab wrote in an email.

“Correlation does not equal causation,” he said. “Furthermore, a reduction in shootings wouldn’t justify violating every single person’s constitutional right to privacy, especially because the government has other constitutional means of addressing this issue.”

The suit was filed on behalf of two Chicago-area residents by the non-profit Liberty Justice Center against Illinois State Police.

But numerous suburban police departments have joined national camera surveillance systems as well. Officials say they’ve been instrumental in catching criminals, including an arsonist in Homer Glen, after shootings in Elmhurst and Woodridge, and following a kidnapping in Waukegan.

John Millner, director of government relations for the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, said the cameras are crucial for solving crimes.

 

“I don’t know how we did without them,” he said. “We’re catching people for kidnapping, arson, murder. You know if we didn’t apprehend them, these people would continue committing these crimes.”

He said police are very careful to protect privacy.

“Privacy is a big deal to us,” he said. “We don’t live in the Soviet republic. We don’t look at people who haven’t done anything.”

The extent of the cameras goes far beyond police. Schools, universities, health care systems, businesses and homeowner associations nationwide also use the cameras.

A few large companies dominate the ALPR business.

One of the biggest is Motorola Solutions, whose Vigilant system boasts more than 2,000 clients, 15,000 cameras, and 44 billion license plate scans.

Flock Safety reports 175 police departments in Illinois use its system, and 4,000 communities nationwide, about half of which are police departments. Vernon Hills alone used it to help recover 14 stolen vehicles and three missing persons, and to identify 39 wanted vehicles.

One vendor that focuses on private commercial uses, DRN, boasts it collects more than 300 million license plates a month in more than 600 jurisdictions.

DRN’s information can also be sold to third parties for collections, repossessions, or marketing, building customer profiles including name, address and phone number. The company’s sales pitch is, “Transform passing vehicles into customers.”

Responding to privacy concerns, Illinois passed a law to prevent the information from being used to track people traveling for abortions from states where the procedure is banned, and to prevent tracking immigrants suspected to be in the country without legal permission, but enforcement of such laws can be difficult.

More broadly, privacy advocates say, even if the cameras are useful for responding to current crimes, they shouldn’t be kept to look into past whereabouts. Yet many systems can keep the recorded information up to 90 days because police say crimes often aren’t discovered or reported until well after they occur.

The American Civil Liberties Union questioned the efficacy of the cameras, and raised concerns about private companies and law enforcement running an artificial intelligence-enhanced, Orwellian “mass-surveillance system.”

Manufacturers acknowledge that the cameras are not always accurate, which could lead to dangerous misidentification of innocent drivers as being wanted. ACLU also reports that the FBI’s license plate database is “notoriously inaccurate,” such as when recovered stolen cars are left on the list.

For its part, Flock has said that it has “strict measures in place to protect resident privacy.” It doesn’t use face recognition, doesn’t sell information to third parties, and keeps data for 30 days. Homeowner clients may register their license plate to be eliminated from captured footage within their association.

For communities that have surveillance cameras, the ACLU recommends measures to limit their use.

New Hampshire state law, which requires law enforcement to delete non-hit license plate data within three minutes, is one model.

The ACLU recommends destroying data if it doesn’t match a wanted plate within 72 hours; banning sharing with beyond law enforcement; and keeping the information to the agency that recorded it.

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©2024 Chicago Tribune. Visit at chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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