The proliferation of automated license plate readers in police departments around the country has increased dramatically over the years, leading the American Civil Liberties Union to commission a report to find out what they are being used for, the policies governing their use and how they should be used to benefit the American public. The report, which has just been released, is called You Are Being Tracked. The report's findings, according to the ACLU, show that plate readers are not being used in a lawful manner that benefits US citizens.

Automated plate readers are placed on roads, highways, overpasses, police cars, etc., and snap photos of all vehicles and license plates that pass by them. Software reads the numbers, adds a time and location stamp to them and then stores them in a database – often for an indefinite amount of time, even if the drivers are innocent of any crime. The ACLU claims that storing plate data indefinitely, or for an unnecessarily long period of time, is an invasion of privacy because many facets of citizens' personal lives can be found out if their location is being tracked at all times.

In a 2011 survey, the ACLU found that almost three-quarters of police departments in the US were using plate readers and 85 percent of them were planning to increase their use of the readers over the next five years.

One city that has no plate-read storage policy, Milpitas, CA, the ACLU points out, has a population of 67,000, yet it had 4.7 million stored plate reads as of August 2, 2012. Jersey City, NJ, has a policy to store read data for 5 years, but with a population of 250,000, it still has about 10 million plate reads stored. The Minnesota State Patrol is striking a better balance with the technology, the ACLU states, with a patrol area covering 5.3 million people but a plate-read storage policy of 48 hours. The MSP stores less than 20,000 reads because of its policy, which the ACLU says limits the chance that innocent drivers can be tracked over time. The Ohio State Patrol's policy is even stricter than the MSP's, the ACLU reports, as its policy states that all non-hit records can't be stored and must be deleted immediately.

Fueling the debate, the ACLU report found that, "In Maryland, for every million plates read, only 47 (0.005 percent) were potentially associated with a stolen car or a person wanted for a serious crime." What do you think about this technology? Check out the ACLU's press release below, then have your say in Comments.
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ACLU Releases Documents on License Plate Scanners From Some 300 Police Departments Nationwide

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Documents Show Location Records Being Kept on Tens of Millions of Innocent Americans

July 17, 2013

NEW YORK – Police departments around the country are rapidly expanding their use of automatic license plate readers to track the location of American drivers, but few have meaningful rules in place to protect drivers' privacy rights, according to documents released today by the American Civil Liberties Union. As a result, the new documents reveal, many departments are keeping innocent people's location information stored for years or even indefinitely, regardless of whether there is any suspicion of a crime.

"The spread of these scanners is creating what are, in effect, government location tracking systems recording the movements of many millions of innocent Americans in huge databases," said ACLU Staff Attorney Catherine Crump, the report's lead author. "We don't object to the use of these systems to flag cars that are stolen or belong to fugitives, but these documents show a dire need for rules to make sure that this technology isn't used for unbridled government surveillance."

The systems use cameras mounted on patrol cars or on objects like road signs and bridges, and the documents show that their deployment is increasing rapidly, with significant funding coming from federal grants. They photograph every license plate they encounter, use software to read the number and add a time and location stamp, then record the information in a database. Police are alerted when numbers match lists containing license numbers of interest, such as stolen cars.

Last summer, ACLU affiliates in 38 states and Washington filed nearly 600 freedom of information requests asking federal, state, and local agencies how they use the readers. The 26,000 pages of documents produced by the agencies that responded – about half – include training materials, internal memos, and policy statements. The results and analysis are detailed in an ACLU report released today called "You Are Being Tracked," which includes charts and policy recommendations.

The study found that not only are license plate scanners widely deployed, but few police departments place any substantial restrictions on how they can be used. The approach in Pittsburg, Calif., is typical: a police policy document there says that license plate readers can be used for "any routine patrol operation or criminal investigation," adding, "reasonable suspicion or probable cause is not required." While many police departments do prohibit police officers from using license plate readers for personal uses such as tracking friends, these are the only restrictions. As New York's Scarsdale Police Department put it in one document, the use of license plate readers "is only limited by the officer's imagination."

A tiny fraction of the license plate scans are flagged as "hits." For example, in Maryland, for every million plates read, only 47 (0.005 percent) were potentially associated with a stolen car or a person wanted for a serious crime. Yet, the documents show that many police departments are storing – for long periods of time – huge numbers of records on scanned plates that do not return hits. For example, police in Jersey City, N.J., recorded 2.1 million plate reads last year. As of August 2012, Grapevine, Texas, had 2 million plate reads stored and Milpitas, Calif., had 4.7 million.

The documents show that policies on how long police keep this data vary widely. Some departments delete records within days or weeks, some keep them for years, while others have no deletion policy at all, meaning they can retain them forever. For example, Jersey City deletes the records after five years, and Grapevine and Milpitas have no deletion policy. In contrast, the Minnesota State Patrol deletes records after 48 hours, and Brookline, Mass., keeps records for 14 days. Maine and Arkansas have passed laws prohibiting the police from retaining the license plate location records of innocent drivers for extended periods.

"The fact that some jurisdictions delete the records quickly shows that it is a completely reasonable and workable policy. We need to see more laws and policies in place that let police protect both public safety and privacy," said Allie Bohm, ACLU advocacy and policy strategist. "The police should not be storing data about people who are not even suspected of doing anything wrong."

The ACLU report released today has over a dozen specific recommendations for government use of license plate scanner systems, including: police must have reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred before examining the data; unless there are legitimate reasons to retain records, they should be deleted within days or weeks at most; and, people should be able to find out if their cars' location history is in a law enforcement database.

License plate readers are used not only by police but also by private companies, which themselves make their data available to police with little or no oversight or privacy protections. One of these private databases, run by a company called Vigilant Solutions, holds over 800 million license plate location records and is used by over 2,200 law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"Police departments should not use databases that do not have adequate private protections in place," said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Project at the ACLU of Massachusetts.

The report, an interactive map with links to the documents, and an interactive slide show are available here.


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  • 111 Comments
      Justin Campanale
      • 1 Year Ago
      As we've seen with everything from the Patriot Act to the post 9/11 hysteria to the recent FSA scandal, our government no longer has any respect for civil liberties, the privacy rights of its populace, or our fundamental rights laid out in the Constitution. We are slowly turning into a fascist police state, where the government monitors our every move, has access to our phone logs and Internet activity, and blatantly violates our privacy, and those few whistleblowers, like Snowden, who are brave enough to stand up tot this tyranny have open season called on upon them I praise the ACLU for working up the courage to whistle-blow on our police departments, but there is no doubt that they will be shouted down, if we're going to follow the pattern echoed in recent events. The federal government accuses Snowden of treason; but tell me, is simply exposing the wrongdoings of ourr government treason? This isn't a liberal vs.conservative issue. The current federal government is nothing more than a corporate led, totalitarian fascist plutocratic regime, which happens to be divided equally between two parties, which looks down upon its fellow citizens;distrusts them to such a caliber that it justifies spying on tens of millions of perfectly innocent Americans. Those who are willing to give up liberty in the name of security gain nether.
      jason32379
      • 1 Year Ago
      Welcome to Amerika - the newest police state to enter the fray.
      Vien Huynh
      • 1 Year Ago
      In no time, we probably will have the SHOW ME ID as in the alternate universe in Fringe.... totally state rule America... Anyway, it is not a good thing, and pro law enforcement are human too, and human tend to be corrupted by power...
      Evan Patipa
      • 1 Year Ago
      I think this is a little ridiculous. I can understand scanning someone license plate to see if is a stolen vehicle or if that plate is associated with any warrants or anything. But storing it? For an unspecified period of time? That is messed up. It used to be that we had some semblance of privacy and now its completely gone. And with hacking as prevalent as it is, there is always the chance that someone could reveal a lot of this data and then hey, a lot of people know when you go where. Idk, i think this is pretty sketch
        clquake
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Evan Patipa
        So, lets say there are no stolen Acura ILX hybrids in your state, and you drive one. What exactly is the purpose of scanning your plate without any reason whatsoever?
          ReTired
          • 1 Year Ago
          @clquake
          The scanners are automated...they don't know an Acura from a Reliant Robin...just scan whatever (not picked & chosen, paranoids) plate comes by their sensors...unless manually operated, when looking for a criminal, etc.
      HVH20
      • 1 Year Ago
      I used to live in California in the suburbs. We had cameras at every intersection to get in or out of the neighborhood. How do you like someone monitoring every time you come and go from your house? Thats not even counting the red light cameras that make intersections "safer" by encouraging drivers to slam on their brakes and the hint of a yellow light.
      methos1999
      • 1 Year Ago
      This makes me think of a Frontline I recently saw on PBS about forensic science and how flawed much of it is. One of the judges fighting for improved standards made a comment applicable to this article - it's not about pro-prosecution, pro-defense or republican or democrat, it's about justice. Do you have a reasonable right to privacy when on the road - probably not. But then again, if police can film you, you should have the right to film them ("public servants" and all). What really drives me nuts are the people who over simplify the conversation, because I do believe it's complicated.
      SAMc
      • 1 Year Ago
      An employee of mine\'s husband was recently busted for DUI (stupid, no doubt). All 3 of their cars were plated and registered in the husband\'s name. She\'s had to switch all 3 into her name b/c SHE\'s been stopped no less than multiple times by officers suspecting its the husband driving on a suspended license because of cameras like these...
      Avinash Machado
      • 1 Year Ago
      Sounds like the Stalin era.
      Lachmund
      • 1 Year Ago
      The United Stasi of America
      A P
      • 1 Year Ago
      Barry, your Big Brother, continues to turn the US in Great Britain where nobody goes anywhere without being on camera. Keep voting Dem, America, you deserve what you get.
        delsolo1
        • 1 Year Ago
        @A P
        But you didn't mind Prez Awol tapping your phones without a warrant. Oh, those were the good ole days.
        Justin Campanale
        • 1 Year Ago
        @A P
        Don't worry, Dubya and his merry band of fascists have been wiretapping you and spying on you way before Obama was even involved in large-scale politics.In fact, the Feds spying on us goes back several decades. If you haven't noticed, the Democrats and Republicans are two branches of one giant corporatist party
          Lachmund
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Justin Campanale
          A P you are so ignorant and uninformed it hurts.
          A P
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Justin Campanale
          NSA and other domestic spying has gone WAY up under the current regime. ALSO its a lot worse to most that voted for Barry because he said HE WAS GOING TO STOP IT, you incredible idiot. Barry and his merry band of pointy headed commies have just made it worse. The funny part to me is that the leftist lemmings that inhabit the net cant seem to understand they have been betrayed. Either they are too stupid or obtuse to get it.
        mikeybyte1
        • 1 Year Ago
        @A P
        Patriot Act. FISA. All started under Bush. Spare us the left/right blabber. Every administration continues to rip our freedoms away. And the feds have no say in what local police departments are doing. So you fail on every point.
          ryanpparrish
          • 1 Year Ago
          @mikeybyte1
          Rippy has a good point. DHS has give a lot of money to localities, conditional money. You want it, you gotta do X. So, in a sense the Feds do have a say, but it's quid pro quo.
          Rippy
          • 1 Year Ago
          @mikeybyte1
          You might want to check.Homeland security has made substantial contributions to police departments around the country for years.They have a little say in what's going on,as they are not given without conditions.I agree with the rest of your statements.
          mikeybyte1
          • 1 Year Ago
          @mikeybyte1
          @ Jim R - agree 100%. That is what I meant by "every administration." Seems like the 4th Amendment is never challenged or supported anymore. It's all trampled on in the name of safety.
        • 1 Year Ago
        @A P
        [blocked]
        superchan7
        • 1 Year Ago
        @A P
        If you're so convinced Barry started this.
      NJ M
      • 1 Year Ago
      The only people with something to worry about are those who are doing something wrong. Typical ACLU nonsense creating false alarms..... If you're that paranoid and concerned, get rid of your car, EZPass, cell phone, computer and any other device, move to the mountains and become a hermit.
        tegdesign
        • 1 Year Ago
        @NJ M
        Then you should have no problem with the police stopping by every week to go through your house and random stops on the road to go through your trunk. If you aren't doing anything wrong you have nothing to worry about.
        cooker263
        • 1 Year Ago
        @NJ M
        On average, you probably break numerous laws on a daily basis just going about your business. Keep that in mind as they create more laws and monitor more and more of what you do.
        Jim R
        • 1 Year Ago
        @NJ M
        Guess what? The average American breaks laws of all kinds every day, often without even realizing they've broken the law. It is IMPOSSIBLE to be a law-abiding citizen. There are so many laws, and so many of them contradictory, you literally can not follow all of them. All they have to do is CATCH YOU.
      engr00
      • 1 Year Ago
      Who cares, dont do anything stupid and you wont have to worry about it.
        Matt
        • 1 Year Ago
        @engr00
        So only criminals should be worried about the constitution?
          Matt
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Matt
          4th amendment protection to unreasonable search and seizure.
          Matt
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Matt
          Oh, and due process.
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Matt
          [blocked]
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Matt
          [blocked]
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