The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 30, 2013

Our View: License plate readers smack of Big Brother

The Free Press

— While public camera technology has helped law enforcement crack many a case, it shouldn't be a license to keep a Big Brother-style database on the daily lives of innocent people.

But that's the status quo of a law governing so called plate reader cameras in Minnesota. They're cameras on squad cars and light poles and can take pictures constantly of license plate numbers. They track where you're driving. Police can be alerted to stolen cars or other criminal activity if their cameras get a match with their crime database.

Seems that until last year anyone could walk into a police station and ask to see the camera files and tapes. People could check up on ex-spouses and see if they were doing anything that might be ammunition for retribution. Bloggers and others had unfettered access to what private citizens were doing and what and where they were driving.

These risks to privacy will be considered against a law enforcement need to use of a powerful tool to catch criminals when the issue is debated at the Legislature in the next few weeks.

 Already, public access to the data has been restricted and that will likely be written into law. But the bigger question revolves around how long law enforcement can keep the records of innocent people who've been captured on their cams.

Law enforcement argues it can be a useful tool during a criminal investigation, and the state sheriff's association leader suggests it would favor a "compromise" position of keeping the information for 18 months. That clearly is overreach and bad policy.

Others suggest a 48-hour holding period for the information if the license plate does not come up with a match to criminal activity when it is scanned. In fact, the American Civil Liberties Union and an unlikely partner Rep. Tony Cornish, R, Good Thunder, support that position.

Cornish has been chair of the House Public Safety Committee and is the former Lake Crystal Police chief.

Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, plans to introduce a bill governing the data and said while she's open to hearing law enforcement's case for longer retention of the data, she will likely push for a short time period.

The 48-hour limit supported by Cornish and the ACLU seem reasonable. It will give law enforcement time to do their job and protect the rights of average citizens to be left alone.