There is an increasing danger posed by new technology to privacy and civil liberties. New technology is being brought online at what seems an increasing rate with little consideration of their implications — or even their efficacy. This includes a license plate recognition (LPR) system being adopted by cities around the world which tracks and identifies the movements of vehicles — and by extension their owners. Now, a study by the National Institute of Justice has found no evidence that LPR actually reduces crime. It does however clearly reduce privacy.
LPR has been used since the 1980s in the United Kingdom to store the dates, times, locations, and plate names of cars.
All of that data has been collected for decades but there appears little value for actually fighting crime as opposed to feeding data in ever growing data banks maintained by the government. Here are the conclusions:
Lum and colleagues (2011) found no significant difference in the levels of all crime between the experimental license plate recognition (LPR) hot spots and control (no LPR) hot spots during the intervention period and 30 days after. This suggests that deployment of LPR did not have a general deterrent effect on all crimes.
Auto Theft/Theft From Auto and Auto-Related Crimes
There were also no significant differences between the LPR hot spots and control hot spots on auto theft or auto-related crimes during the intervention period and 30 days after. This suggests that deployment of LPR did not have an offense-specific deterrent effect either.
Taylor, Koper, and Woods (2012) found no statistically significant differences between the LPR group, the manual plate checking group, or the normal patrol control group based on calls for services (CFS) for vehicle theft during the intervention weeks and during the 2 weeks immediately following the intervention. The multivariate analysis showed that the routes with the manual plate checking saw a statistically significant 75 percent decline in the odds of having a CFS for vehicle theft versus the control group routes, although the effect faded over time. There was no significant change noted for the routes with the LPR.
During the intervention weeks, there were also no statistically significant differences between the groups on vehicle theft based on Uniform Crime Report (UCR) data. However, during the 2 weeks postintervention, there was a statistically significant difference observed. The routes with the LPR had a slightly higher number of vehicle thefts compared to the routes with the manual plate checks or control group routes. Multivariate analysis of the UCR data revealed results similar to those found based on analysis of the CFS data. There was a statistically significant 74 percent reduction in the odds of a UCR-reported vehicle theft in the manual plate check routes versus the control group routes; however, again the effect faded over time. There was no significant effect noted for the routes with the LPR.
The only difference was found to be in the recovery of stolen vehicles, but that difference was described as “a small, statistically significant difference.” There was also a small difference in arrests. However, that marginal difference hardly would justify the program or the loss of privacy.
LPR offers a fascinating example of how technology can develop a purpose and life of its own. There is an irresistible lure of such technology that becomes menacing when coupled with the insatiable appetite of the government for information.