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Editorial: An unwarranted violation of privacy

All across the country, cheap, powerful digital cameras mounted on cruisers allow police officers to scan the plates of passing cars as they whiz by at high speed. Authorities use this information, including time and location, to create databases – sometimes enormous databases – and then check that information against a list of cars reported stolen or linked to other crimes.

All across the country, that is, except in New Hampshire, where such license plates readers are illegal and should stay that way.

A recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union made clear the perils of such systems. Going after bad guys is one thing, but such systems can be used more broadly and also abused. The scanners themselves don’t differentiate between suspicious cars and those of ordinary citizens. Once a license plate is scanned, the information can be shared regionally or statewide – which potentially would allow the police to follow your movements as you go about your daily life, keeping track of where you go, when and with whom. Such systems also allow officers to connect cars to drivers. A license on a car registered to someone wanted by law enforcement would deliver an alert to the police, regardless of who was actually driving, and presumably encourage an officer to stop the driver and ask questions.

Is abuse by law enforcement far-fetched? Not according to the ACLU report, which noted, for instance, that in New York City police officers have used unmarked cars with scanners to track people coming and going from local mosques. In Great Britain, authorities installed 200 scanners in predominantly Muslim communities – until public backlash forced a retreat.

“All too frequently these data are retained permanently and shared widely with few or no restrictions on how they can be used,” according to the report.

Just the notion that the government might be watching can no doubt have a chilling effect, a problem that the police themselves acknowledge. Because of license plate scanners, people may become “more cautious in the exercise of their protected rights of expression, protest, association, and political participation,” according to a 2011 report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

First District Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter has co-sponsored legislation that would temper the use of such scanning systems where they are legal. Her bill would require that any data collected be destroyed after 30 days, except in the case of an ongoing criminal investigation. That’s a positive step.

But as technology and the fear of crime and terrorism make it more and more possible for the government to intrude on our privacy in the name of security, we must ask whether any of this is worth it.

The ACLU analyzed data collected in Maryland in 2012: 85 million records of the location of vehicle plates. The group found that just one in 500 plates registered as suspicious. And in the vast majority of those cases, the alleged wrongdoings were small – lapsed registrations and the like. For each million plates scanned, just 47 were associated with serious crimes. The ACLU collected statistics in other parts of the country and similarly found hit rates far below 1 percent.

A bill pending in the New Hampshire Legislature would legalize such license plate scanners in New Hampshire. Penacook Rep. Steve Shurtleff, a supporter, told the New Hampshire Union Leader that he thinks data collected should be held for no more than 48 hours. That sounds reasonable. But more reasonable still would be to just say no.

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