UCF is scanning and storing license plates, but assurances of that data's security are iffy

click to enlarge UCF is scanning and storing license plates, but assurances of that data's security are iffy
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This month, the University of Central Florida begins a policy of using license plate readers (LPRs) to track students' vehicles in order to "support the UCF Police Department's efforts to prevent and solve crimes," according to a campus-wide email from UCFPD Chief Carl Metzger.

LPR cameras will be stationed at entry and exit points of the campus, as well as mounted on parking enforcement vehicles. The UCFPD will be able to run the collected data through state and federal databases in a matter of minutes to check for expired tags, suspended licenses, stolen vehicles or "persons of interest."

[Note: Immediately after the publication of this story, the UCFPD clarified to Orlando Weekly that LPR cameras will be situated at just six entry and exit points. They say LPRs will not be mounted on UCF police cars.]

"With safety as our top priority, we regularly review possible enhancements to our campus security measures," Courtney Gilmartin, public information officer with the UCFPD, said in an email. "License plate readers emerged as a cost-efficient, effective force multiplier that could aid in preventing and solving crimes."

Along with the plate and vehicle information, the time, date, and location will also be recorded into the database. The data collected by the cameras will be stored in a cloud server operated by UCFPD, who have said they will only hold onto the information for one year.

With LPR cameras mounted on their cars, police cruisers will be able to read the license plates of cars they pass. In theory, they could stop and give citations to students with minor infractions. But, according to Gilmartin, that's not what the authorities are focused on.

"Once they have the data, anybody can get a subpoena or a search warrant for it," says Dave Maass of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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"The technology can alert to expired or suspended tags, but that's not how we expect to utilize it," Gilmartin said. "We're looking to prevent serious criminal activity."

With this also comes a change in UCF's parking system, as the university hopes to transition from physical parking decals to license plates acting as parking permits. With this new policy, students, faculty, and visitors at any UCF campus must park with their license plates visible or else receive a warning or citation.

"Like many other universities and municipalities embracing this technology around the country, UCF is joining the thread of transitioning to virtual permits for the sake of costs, sustainability, efficiency and safety," Andy Rampersad, UCF's assistant director of Parking and Transportation Services, said in a statement.

In Flagler County, Florida, LPR cameras monitor the roads for the Flagler County Sheriff's Department. When a plate that has been listed to be of interest in their system, it sends an alert to their dispatch center and to officers in the field as to the vehicle's location.

"In 2018, crime dropped 22 percent in Flagler County. That's not all related to the LPRs, but our stolen vehicles are down over 50 percent and our apprehension of fugitives is up significantly," Brittany Kershaw, public affairs manager of the Flagler Sheriff's Department, said. "We've [removed] some very dangerous people off the streets due to the LPRs."

Every car that is monitored by an LPR is put into the department's database, which is stored at a central location in Miami for three years.

In St. Johns County, Florida, 30 LPR cameras put into use at the beginning of 2018 are credited with 81 stolen cars, 57 stolen tags, and 27 arrests of people listed as wanted, according to Government Technology.

But to some, the use of LPR technology by police departments is worse than a solution to a non-problem – it's a solution that causes more problems.

Dave Maass is a senior investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit organization that aims to defend "civil liberties in a digital world."

Maass studies LPRs, and he says UCF's new initiative has the potential for a lot of problems. According to him, the UCFPD holding onto the license plate information for up to a year is "totally irresponsible."

"There's no reason that they need that information for so long," Maass says. "They're just storing it to store it in case maybe one day it becomes usable.  Most of the time, none of that is going to be usable to anyone."

Maass brought up concerns such as the vulnerability of the data to hackers, and how the information can be shared with other law enforcement groups.

"License plate readers are kind of like a gateway drug for technology," Maass said. "Once [police departments] have it, the next thing they might get is facial recognition because there isn't much of a difference in the technology."

The city of Orlando has already controversially participated in a trial using Amazon's Rekognition technology, a facial surveillance system that can be used to identify and track people over a network of 180 cameras.

On Monday, CNN reported that at least 50,000 license plates were leaked to the dark web after a company contracted by U.S Customs and Border Protection, Perceptics, was hacked. What was more egregious is that the company was never even authorized to have that information.

Gilmartin clarified that the information collected at UCF will be kept on a "secure cloud," but wouldn't elaborate further.

In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, Chief Metzger stressed that the UCFPD sharing their data with federal agencies, such as U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement, wasn't part of their agenda.

"This is about keeping the campus safe," Chief Metzger told the Sentinel. "So that isn't something that's going to be part of the equation for us."

But according to Maass, who the department shares its data with may not be up to them.

"Once they have the data, anybody can get a subpoena or a search warrant for it. They have it, it's there," Maass said.

Gilmartin says that the policy is in accordance with guidelines set by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the data will only be shared for "law enforcement purposes."

The new LPR system has been introduced to a minimal reaction from UCF students, and time will tell how effective the new system will be for preventing crimes on campus. The same can also be said for what kind of unintentional or negative consequences the policy will have. 

"Police are always focused on what can go right instead of considering what could go wrong," Maass said. "They are creating a public safety danger rather than a public safety solution."

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