In our opinion: Protecting privacy

Published: Thursday, March 6 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

There is value in technology that might help police track down a car involved in a crime. But any ongoing use of the information to survey patterns of behavior among motorists not suspected of crimes is indeed a matter of concern.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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A measure before the Utah Legislature, Senate Bill 222, would regulate information gathered by scanning automobile license plates. The bill provides balance between the constitutional rights of commercial enterprises and those of private citizens.

At issue is data collected by private companies using high-tech cameras to capture license plate images at various times and locations. Two firms engaged in such an enterprise have sued the state in federal court over a law, passed last year, restricting the use of scanning technology to law enforcement and other government agencies, and sets limits on how long that data may be kept in storage. The companies claim the law violates their First Amendment right to take photographs in public places.

Lawmakers working to revise the law have recognized that the practice also carries implications for citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. Taking photographs is one matter; but what’s done with the information gleaned from those pictures is another.

Sponsored by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, SB222 would amend the existing statute to allow private companies to gather license plate data and store it indefinitely. But it forbids public safety agencies from obtaining such data from any company that doesn’t conform to storage restrictions placed on government agencies. They may keep this information for up to nine months.

The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a unanimous vote. It represents a compromise that should assuage the companies’ concerns about the ability to practice their businesses, while also placing limits against egregious incursions of personal privacy.

Other issues of this sort will arise as a result of advances in technology allowing for the acquisition of personal information from private citizens without their knowledge or consent. Scanning license plates is attractive to private companies who presumably see commercial value in the data, as well as to law enforcement.

There is value in technology that might help police track down a car involved in a crime. But any ongoing use of the information to survey patterns of behavior among motorists not suspected of crimes is indeed a matter of concern.

The proliferation of technology that allows public and private entities to collect information about individuals without their knowledge is troubling enough to justify measures like SB222.

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