ACLU-NC Releases Details of Automatic License Plate Reader Investigation

July 17, 2013 12:00 am

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Documents from N.C. Law Enforcement Agencies Show Location Information Being Kept on Thousands of Innocent North Carolinians; ACLU Supports Legislation to Create Privacy Safeguards in N.C.

July 17, 2013

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RALEIGH – Police departments in North Carolina and around the country are rapidly expanding their use of automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) to track the location of drivers, but few have meaningful rules in place to protect drivers’ privacy rights, according to documents released today by the American Civil Liberties Union. As a result, the new documents reveal, many departments are keeping innocent people’s location information stored for years or even indefinitely, regardless of whether there is any suspicion of a crime.

The systems use cameras mounted on patrol cars or on objects like road signs and bridges, and the documents show that their deployment is increasing rapidly, with significant funding coming from federal grants. They photograph every license plate they encounter, use software to read the number and add a time and location stamp, then record the information in a database. Police are alerted when numbers match lists containing license numbers of interest, such as stolen cars.

“Automatic license plate readers allow the government to record the movement of countless citizens and then store that information in massive databases,” said Sarah Preston, Policy Director for the ACLU of North Carolina. “We don’t object to the use of these scanners to flag cars that are stolen or used in a crime, but our findings show a dire need to enact safeguards that will protect the privacy of North Carolinians and ensure that this technology does not lead to the routine tracking of innocent people who have done nothing wrong.”

There are currently no laws regulating law enforcement’s use of ALPRs in North Carolina. The ACLU-NC strongly supports S.B. 623, legislation that would place safeguards on ALPR use by requiring law enforcement to obtain a warrant before using or sharing ALPR data and by placing time limits on how long the data can be stored. The bill still allows ALPR data to be used for reasonable law enforcement purposes such as checking license plates against databases to make sure a vehicle hasn’t been stolen or involved in a crime.

Last summer, the ACLU-NC sent public records requests to law enforcement agencies throughout North Carolina and found that at least 11 use ALPRs. They are the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department, Durham County Tax Administrator, Fayetteville Police Department, Greenville Police Department, High Point Police Department, Jacksonville Police Department, Raleigh Police Department, Washington Police Department, Wilmington Police Department, Wilson County Sheriff’s Office, and Wrightsville Beach Police Department.

The results and analysis from North Carolina and 37 other states are detailed in an ACLU report released today called “You Are Being Tracked,” which includes charts and policy recommendations. The study found that not only are license plate scanners widely deployed, but few police departments place any substantial restrictions on how they can be used.

Among the findings in North Carolina:

  • Many N.C. law enforcement agencies keep ALPR data for very long periods of time, from indefinitely (Washington) to 18 months (Charlotte-Mecklenburg), one year (Durham County and Wilson County) or six months (Raleigh).
  • The Washington P.D. reported 585,000 plate reads between April 2010 and August 2012, approximately 20,000 per month.
  • The High Point P.D. reported 70,289 plate reads between August 2011 and June 2012. Of those reads, only .08% resulted in “hits.”
  • Some departments have taken proactive steps to self-regulate their ALPR use. The Jacksonville P.D., for example, retains data for only 30 days and does not allow third parties to access its data. This has not prevented them from using ALPRs as an important law enforcement tool.
  • The ALPR vendor for Charlotte-Mecklenburg uses a slideshow that compares ALPR data to the collection of coins in Super Mario Brothers video games: “the more you capture, the farther you get in the game!”

The ACLU report released today has over a dozen specific recommendations for government use of license plate scanner systems, including: police must have reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred before examining the data; unless there are legitimate reasons to retain records, they should be deleted within days or weeks at most; and, people should be able to find out if their cars’ location history is in a law enforcement database.

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