Mass Tracking of Drivers Raises Privacy Concerns, Says ACLU


  • License Plate Readers Picture

    License Plate Readers Picture

    A new ACLU report is raising privacy concerns about the use of automatic license plate readers. | July 18, 2013

Just the Facts:
  • The mass tracking of drivers by the use of automatic license plate readers by police is raising privacy concerns, says a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union.
  • The report, entitled "You Are Being Tracked," says that police departments throughout the U.S. are recording the license plates and vehicle movements of passing drivers and storing the data for years.
  • "Much of this fear is fueled by a lack of understanding of the technology itself," said the Los Angeles Police Protective League in a recent blog post. "LPR technology does nothing more than what officers have been doing manually since the creation of the license plate."

NEW YORK — The mass tracking of drivers by the use of automatic license plate readers by police is raising privacy concerns, says a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The report, entitled "You Are Being Tracked," says that police departments throughout the U.S. are recording the license plates and vehicle movements of passing drivers and storing the data for years.

The report condenses 26,000 pages of documents gathered through public records requested by the ACLU from nearly 600 local and state police departments in 38 states and the District of Columbia.

"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 ACLU is calling for legislation to restrict and regulate the technology.

The systems use high-speed cameras mounted on patrol cars or road signs and bridges. The data is checked against lists of plate numbers "of interest," such as stolen cars. "Their deployment is increasing rapidly, with significant funding coming from federal grants," said the ACLU.

Police departments vary widely in how long data is kept.

"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," said the ACLU.

Police argue that the automatic license plate readers help to keep officers and the public safe.

"Much of this fear is fueled by a lack of understanding of the technology itself," said the Los Angeles Police Protective League in a recent blog post. "LPR technology does nothing more than what officers have been doing manually since the creation of the license plate: writing down license plate numbers or radioing license plates in for checks against criminal databases. LPR simply makes the process more efficient, allowing the officer to look at all license plates equally and better focus on his or her surroundings." LAPD holds data for five years, according to the blog post.

"LPR is not an invasion of privacy, but rather a tool for law enforcement to better accomplish its mission to protect and service," it said.

Edmunds says: This is just the beginning of a national debate on a touchy subject.

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