Mark McDermott

On Local Government: It’s all about the data

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by Bob Pinzler

I know a great deal about license plate recognition (LPR), having been part owner of a company that was one of the two earliest entrants into that market in the US. So, one would think I would be happy to see that Manhattan Beach is planning on placing LPR systems on intersections within the city to provide post-incident information to the police about possible illegal activity.

I am, but not completely.

Over the past 12 years, LPR has grown from being a system by which stolen cars are tracked to one where huge quantities of data are being gathered by both the public and private sector and kept, in some cases indefinitely, on the movements of vehicles for which there is no suspicion of illegal behavior. In fact, nearly 99 percent of the data collected is not for the purpose of solving any particular crime.

In the case of Manhattan Beach, the purpose of the system would be to assist law enforcement in tracking perpetrators, especially of property crimes, by providing a list of the vehicles that were in the area at the time it occurred. That’s the good part.

But, that information has limited time value. If you have not gotten the information you need to help solve the crime, saving information listing the plate number of every vehicle passing through that area is a violation of those vehicle owners’ privacy. It should be imperative on the MBPD to delete that information immediately. They should also not share it.

The LPR world has changed from my day as more and more public and private users, including operators of repossession tow trucks, gather plate data indiscriminately and then aggregate it into a central database, accessible by users all over the country. Thus, these Manhattan Beach plate reads may become available to any authorized user on that system.

This is the great conundrum of “big data.” There are obvious advantages for systems to provide mission critical information to people and organizations that need it to solve problems. However, the collection of the data should not be assumed to be a universal good.

As we have seen too many times over the past decade, “impenetrable” systems are often penetrated. Users make stupid mistakes, such as loading data onto laptops, which end up stolen. On top of that, users themselves sometimes have reasons for accessing information for which they are not authorized.

The potential for revelation of personal information grows every day. But, that does not mean it is wrong to collect it. It simply makes the case for why data that no longer has relevance should be permanently deleted from wherever it has been saved.

However, as we all know, retrieving data once shared is impossible to recall. Thus, it behooves the MBPD, gathering information to help reduce property crime, to not share it with the nation unless the access is warranted.

It is the only way we can restore at least a modicum of our privacy. 


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