Somebody’s watching me

SRU's automatic license plate readers instantly catch illegal parkers

Published by , Date: December 3, 2021

Last year, Slippery Rock University purchased two automatic license plate readers for their patrol cars in to help with illegal parking on campus but how the data would be collected and stored was not known to the public.

In September, The Rocket filed a Right-to-Know request seeking documents related to the ALPR technology used by the university police department.

The two units, which were purchased in June 2019, cost the university a little more than $80,000 paid for by the educational and general fund. The automatic license plate reader system was purchased from Passport Labs, Inc. based in Detroit, Mich.

The system works by taking two photos of every license plate the system recognizes. These photos include a close-up of the license plate and another of the vehicle and the surrounding area to provide context.

Along with two photos, the system also records GPS data, the date and the time the photos were taken. The system also converts the license plate number from the image into text through an algorithm, according to information provided by Slippery Rock University Police Chief Kevin Sharkey.

The data from the system then checks itself not only against the university’s parking system to see if a vehicle is parked in the right spot but other systems that track stolen vehicles, suspect vehicles and even AMBER alerts.

According to Sharkey, the whole process from scan to notification happens in a matter of seconds.

Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have called for legislation in the past to curb the use and uphold strict privacy principles of automatic license plate readers to prevent mass surveillance.

In the information provided to The Rocket, the university said it averages more than 5,100 license plate scans a month.

That information is stored for up to 120 days by the university police unless it is needed for an investigation or law action such as a ticket. According to documents, those scans that are not associated with an open investigation or citation are deleted automatically once reaching the time limit.

As of Oct. 19, the system held 17,069 individual license plate scans. In the response from the university, the number of total license plate scans on any given day can change as new ones are added and older ones are deleted by the system.

Access to the system is strictly regulated by Sharkey and the built-in controls of the system which require a login. That system is also monitored to see who accesses the system.

The data stored in the system is also not shared or sold to any third parties. Data can be shared with other law enforcement and may be subject to a subpoena, according to the university.

Back in November 2020, automatic license plate reader technology was used by police in Cranberry Township to identify four individuals suspected of stealing catalytic converters throughout Butler and Beaver Counties, including thefts on campus and in the borough. No data from the university’s system was used but video surveillance was provided to investigators and used in Slippery Rock University Police’s own probable cause affidavit.

The university said last year that it would like to use the technology not just for enforcement but to create a system that lets students, faculty and staff know which lots have spaces available. So far, that system has not been implemented.

As for citations, from August 2019 to September 1, 2021, records show Slippery Rock University Police have issued more than 5,300 parking citations costing drivers more than $23,000 dollars.

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Joe is a senior communication major with concentrations in converged journalism and digital media production. This is his second year with The Rocket and first as the news editor. With a penchant for asking tough questions, his byline can be found on more than 100 articles for The Rocket including many breaking news and investigative pieces. During the hours he’s not wearing the hat of student journalist, he spends his time as a husband, father and dog owner in Slippery Rock.


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