Greenville Police utilizing Automated License Plate Readers to battle crime, prompting privateness questions

GREENVILLE, SC (WSPA) – The Greenville Police Department installed 11 cameras around town in January to read license plates in a pilot study aimed at improving public safety.

Automated License Plate Readers are used by agencies across the country. Police said they were helpful in finding stolen cars, but civil rights groups have concerns.

“It’s essentially a 24-hour pair of eyes that we can use to identify vehicles that have been added to the national database,” said Lee Hunt, administrator of strategic planning and analysis for the Greenville Police Department.

He said the cameras take pictures and send them to a cloud database run by the camera company. The images are then passed through a national FBI database. The police said they are looking for close matches.

“Stolen vehicles, stolen license plates, missing and wanted people,” said Hunt.

He said they weren’t looking for things like fines or overdue child support.

If there is a “hit”, the police will be notified in about 60 seconds.

“As a result, we were able to recover a number of stolen vehicles,” said Hunt.

But some are skeptical.

“They’re known to be wrong,” said Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst with the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation for digital rights. “I mean, people were pulled out of their cars by the police at gunpoint when automated license plate readers mistakenly matched their license plate with a wanted car.”

He also said the data could be used for more than police initially allowed.

“You may be signing up for a very straightforward technology, but with the company constantly making updates, selling new packages and selling police stations, you may end up with technology that is actually much more invasive than planned,” he said.

The people 7News spoke to came up on both sides of the problem.

“You don’t bother me at all,” said John Dierking, who lives in Greenville. “I have no problem with them. I am not doing anything wrong. “

“If only I do the day-to-day business [and] It’s only sent to the FBI or the government, even if I just go to the store … I think that’s weird, “said Lydia Ritter from Greenville.

According to Hunts, the data will be deleted after 30 days, and the police will check every week that the officers are not misusing the data. He said the pilot program was successful and they wanted to add 14 more cameras to capture license plates.

Greenville City Council has already approved funding for the additional 14 cameras.

Hunt said the cameras are paid for through council-approved foreclosures.

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