Both the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department and the Los Angeles Police Department have become big fans of cameras that capture license plate numbers and check them against information in registration and criminal databases. The Sheriff's Department uses 47 fixed cameras and has 77 squad cars with the equipment, the LAPD has gone from having 12 cruisers with the cameras five years ago to 100 now – and the cameras snag images of more than a thousand plates a minute. The LA departments aren't alone, either, with 71 percent of police departments nationwide said to be using the technology, and New Hampshire the only state to ban it.
Authorities tout how the information helps find stolen cars and help solve investigations, but the American Civil Liberties Union has an issue with the police holding onto the plate images of innocent people. The LAPD is understood to retain the information for five years, the LASD keeps it "indefinitely." According to the Los Angeles Times, the ACLU of Southern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a Public Records Act request for one week of the data generated by the camera and was denied, with the law enforcement agencies arguing that the information constitutes "investigative material" and thus it doesn't need to be released. That led both organizations to sue, worried that storage of information gathered on innocent citizens is a violation of their privacy.
ACLU attorney Peter Bibring says he would like the information to be destroyed after two weeks. Before that happens, he'll need to convince a judge that long-term databases containing the real-time whereabouts are a threat to a citizen's privacy. It'll probably be tough to do: police can perform manual checks at will, people have essentially no right to privacy in public spaces, the technology is ubiquitous, with border crossings and even the IRS using it, federal grants helping departments purchase the cameras, and information now going beyond state authorities and being checked against national registration and criminal databases. The ACLU has openly questioned the cameras for years, but this isn't only about the 'surveillance state,' it's about the record-keeping state.