Police Using License Plate Reader Surveillance to Track All Drivers
July 18, 2013
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has documented how police departments use surveillance endeavors on Americans by recording license plate numbers as drivers pass by to strengthen their information databases without foreknowledge by the public.
Over 26,000 pages were gathered through researching public records and the Freedom of Information Act (FIOA) to conclude that nearly 600 local and state police departments in 38 states across America, including the District of Columbia, are participating in this scheme.
Millions of digital records have been amassed using this system that gives enforcement agencies the ability to locate any car at any time. The scanners are able to “capture images of passing or parked vehicles and note their location, uploading that information into police databases. Departments keep the records for weeks or years, sometimes indefinitely.”
Using automatic license plate readers (ALPR) surveillance technology, there is a clear and “startling picture of a technology deployed with too few rules that is becoming a tool for mass routine location tracking and surveillance.”
The ACLU relayed in a statement that “the documents paint a startling picture of a technology deployed with too few rules that is becoming a tool for mass routine location tracking and surveillance.”
More disturbing is that “private companies are also using license plate readers and sharing the information they collect with police with little or no oversight or privacy protections. A lack of regulation means that policies governing how long our location data is kept vary widely.”
High-speed cameras are used in conjunction with software to analyze photographs wherein license plate numbers are retrieved. The data is compared to “hot lists” of plate numbers and produces an instant alert when a match, or “hit,” registers.
The ACLU explains: “License plate readers would pose few civil liberties risks if they only checked plates against hot lists and these hot lists were implemented soundly. But these systems are conﬁgured to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location where all vehicles are seen — not just the data of vehicles that generate hits.”
Effectively, hot list information is gathered from the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).
The ACLU admonished that this practice violates our 4th Amendment rights because “systems are conﬁgured to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location where all vehicles are seen — not just the data of vehicles that generate hits.”
This enables the enforcement industry to create “s police to create “a single, high-resolution image of our lives.”
Catherine Crump, chief author of the ACLU report said: “At first, we didn’t think it posed much of a privacy problem.”
Upon examination of the documents, the ACLU was able to reveal “a system that triggered a real-time alert to the presence of a stolen vehicle, or a car linked to a fugitive, and that seemed acceptable. But then the group realized police were storing the license plate scans — whether or not there had been a ‘hit’.”
The Portland City police department (PCPD) has joined with those agencies that are tracking drivers and recording license plates.
The PCPD has 16 cameras attached to their cars that are armed to work with the surveillance software and database network.
Sargent Pete Simpson of the Portland Police Bureau explained that the PCPD has “scanners on patrol cars for several years. He said police use the scanners to alert officers if a car is stolen or if the owner of the car has a warrant for their arrest.”
The PCPD retains “the data for a minimum of 30 days and a maximum of 40 years. The data is also only accessible by police.”
According to the ACLU report: “The documents show that many police departments are storing for long periods of time huge numbers of records on scanned plates that do not return ‘hits.’ For example, police in Jersey City, N.J., recorded 2.1 million plate reads last year. As of August 2012, Grapevine, Texas, had 2 million plate reads stored and Milpitas, Calif., had 4.7 million.”