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.