ACLU Sues Federal Agencies Over License Plate Reader Information
Demands records on how ordinary citizens' data is kept and shared.
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BOSTON -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLUm) and the national ACLU today filed suit in federal court against the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security seeking records about the federal government's use of automatic license plate readers (ALPRs).
These devices, mounted on police cars or stationary objects, can read and process up to 1,800 license plates per minute, allowing police to track ordinary citizens going about their lives like never before. The devices read license plates and search databases for stolen vehicles, wanted individuals, expired registrations, warrants, and more. However, they also record the time and location of every license plate they read, creating huge databases that can track potentially millions of people who have not committed any crimes or done anything wrong.
License plate readers are spreading rapidly around the country--they are already in use in at least 40 cities in Massachusetts across the state, including the Boston area, Worcester and Springfield--and are being used by federal law enforcement.
The public, however, has little information about how they are used to track motorists' movements, including how long the data collected is stored, with whom it is shared, how it is secured and whether police departments pool this information in state, regional or national databases.
"If license plate readers are being used as a tool for mass routine location tracking and surveillance, we need to know more about it," said Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy & Technology Project. "The public should have an informed debate about the costs and benefits of this technology before we spend millions of dollars on it."
The suit comes after federal agencies failed to release records requested in July 2012. The national ACLU and the ACLU of Massachusetts had filed FOIA requests with the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security to answer questions such as these:
- do federal agencies operate their own license plate readers?
- how long do they keep data?
- with whom do they share ALPR data?
- how secure is the data?
- are privacy policies in place to protect drivers?
Location information can reveal deeply sensitive and intimate details of our lives. As the International Association of Chiefs of Police has put it in a report titled 'Privacy impact assessment for the utilization of license plate readers' in 2009, "mobile LPR cameras may collect the license plate numbers of vehicles parked at locations that, even though public, might be considered sensitive, such as doctor' offices, clinics, churches and addiction counseling meetings, among others."
"The places you go say a lot about who you are," said ACLUm staff attorney Laura Rótolo. "If the government knows where you shop, where you worship, who you visit, and where you go to the doctor, it can put together a picture of your entire life. Police shouldn't track everybody. They should only track people they suspect of committing crimes."
For more information about ALPRs, go to: http://aclum.org/alpr
For details about the requests about ALPRs that the ACLU filed with the federal Department of Transportation, Department of Justice, and Department of Homeland Security in July 2012, go to: http://www.aclu.org/search?kw_
For more information about the ACLU of Massachusetts, go to: http://www.aclum.org