License plate readers raise privacy concerns
Police departments stiff-arm requests for information on how they use the data
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU/SC) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have filed suit against the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, alleging that the departments are withholding data gathered from license-plate readers.
The plate readers are described by the ACLU of Southern California as “sophisticated camera systems mounted on squad cars and telephone poles that read license plates and record the time, date, and location a particular car was encountered.”
The readers, which can record up to 14,000 license plates per session, are intended to help locate stolen cars. However, the ACLU/SC says that the readers “keep information on every car — even where there’s no reason to think the car is connected to any crime.”
Data not provided
According to the ACLU/SC, the organization previously filed requests with the LAPD and the Sheriff's Department requesting one week’s worth of data collected last year, along with documents detailing plate-reader training. The organization says that the agencies failed to produce the data, and also have not handed over data on information they shared with outside agencies.
“Location-based information like license plate data can be very revealing,” EFF attorney Jennifer Lynch said an ACLU press release. “By matching your car to a particular time, date and location, and then building a database of that information over time, law enforcement can learn where you work and live, what doctor you go to, which religious services you attend, and who your friends are. The public needs access to the data the police actually collected to be able to make informed decisions about how ALPR systems can and can’t be used.”
Many requests, not much response
Last July, ACLU affiliates in 38 states, as well as Washington, D.C., requested information on how license plate readers were used by various police departments and other agencies. The ACLU also filed Freedom of Information Act (or “FOIL”) requests with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Department of Transportation, and Department of Justice regarding their use of license plate readers.
In a press release announcing those requests, the ACLU asserted that “[t]he biggest problem with [license plate reader] systems is the creation of databases with location information on every motorist who encounters the system, not just those whom the government suspects of criminal activity.”
“As license plate location data accumulates, the system ceases to be simply a mechanism enabling efficient police work and becomes a warrantless tracking tool, enabling retroactive surveillance of millions of people,” the release said.
Becoming more common
License plate readers join red-light cameras, speeding cameras, and surveillance video on the list of automated, sometimes eerie technology purportedly used to deter crime and track down criminal suspects. And the technology is becoming more commonplace; an ACLU blog post from January 2013 reveals that a 2011 survey showed that 71 percent of agencies that responded had plate-reading technology.
Even more eye-popping, the “survey found that almost every police agency expects to acquire or increase their use of LPRs in coming years, and that five years from now, on average they expect to have 25 percent of their cars equipped with LPRs,” and that “[a] large majority of agencies (85 percent) plan to acquire or increase their use of LPRs during the next five years.”
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