Police officers in Alexandria, Virginia, frequently take pictures of the license plates of random vehicles all over the city — meaning that people’s addresses, work locations and daily routines are well known to the authorities who collect such information and store it for stretches of time.
The disturbing discovery was made by Katie Watson, an investigative reporter with Watchdog.org’s Virginia bureau. Watson submitted a public records request with the Alexandria Police Department for all information the police had about her. Watson already knew that the police used automatic license plate recognition software to collect information. What she didn’t know was how pervasive the surveillance was.
“From my research and interviews on police and ALPR technology for Watchdog.org, I was pretty sure they would have something of my records,” she told The Daily Caller. “But I have to admit I was pretty shocked to see police had taken pictures of my license plate while my car was safely inside my apartment complex’s parking lot.”
Police took 16 photos of Watson’s car over a six month period. In March, police photographed her car while she was on her way to Bible study. ALPR technology picked her up again as recently as April 1.
Police defend the program as necessary to catch criminals, even if most of the collected data pertains to innocent people. Alexandria’s sophisticated technology can check up to 1,800 license plates in a single minute.
The information stays on a police computer for up to 30 days before being uploaded into a database for six months. It is then discarded, according to Watson.
But even temporary storage of information gathered on random citizens is impermissible, according to former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. His opinion, issued last year, does not carry the force of law, however.
ALPR’s potential for abuse and misuse has civil libertarians concerned. The American Civil Liberties Union has warned that any government policy of unwarranted surveillance runs contrary to American constitutional principles:
In our society, it is a core principle that the government does not invade people’s privacy and collect information about citizens’ innocent activities just in case they do something wrong. Clear regulations must be put in place to keep the government from tracking our movements on a massive scale.
Watson said her investigation has deepened her concerns about the practice.
“What was merely a fascinating series of stories to report suddenly became very real,” she said. “Now, I have coworkers, friends and readers asking me how they can find out what kind of records their police have on them, too.”