ACLU investigates law enforcement use of license plate scanners

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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The American Civil Liberties Union is looking into how state, local and federal law enforcement agencies are using license plate scanners to track the vehicle movements of drivers.

At the end of July, the ACLU announced that affiliates in 38 states sent requests to state and local law enforcement agencies for more information about the scanning program, and how the government is using the data it collects.

The ACLU and their Massachusetts affiliate also filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice and the Department of Transportation “to learn how the federal government funds [automatic license plate reader] expansion nationwide and uses the technology itself.”

Automatic license plate readers, or ALPRs, are stationary or mobile cameras that capture images vehicle license plates and, sometimes, images of the vehicle driver. The systems have been used to track uninsured drivers, stolen vehicles and even Amber Alerts.

“When used in a narrow and carefully regulated way, ALPRs can help police recover stolen cars and arrest people with outstanding warrants,” said the ACLU.

“Unfortunately, law enforcement agencies are increasingly moving towards a “keep everything, share widely” formula concerning ALPR data,” said the organization.

The ACLU is currently awaiting on the results of its request.

Time Magazine writer Adam Cohen noted Monday in a piece on the ACLU’s investigation into the issue, “There used to be general agreement that activities like driving, which occur on public streets, are not private — and that people have no right to complain when their movements are being tracked.”

“But the rise of highly invasive technology and databases is changing that,” he said.

There was also a push in Oklahoma as early as 2009 to install cameras along the sides of highways to scan the tags on vehicle license plates and match the data up against a national database to verify whether the driver’s insurance was valid. If not, the driver would receive a ticket in the mail.

Recent revelations of surveillance systems like TrapWire and the NYPD’s Domain Awareness System, the latter built with the help of Microsoft, have sparked greater concern over privacy and civil liberties issues. The NYPD surveillance system also possesses the capability to scan vehicle license plates.

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