Information Sought on How Cameras are Used and Whether Data is Stored and Retained
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MONTPELIER - The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont has joined ACLU affiliates in 34 other states in sending requests today to local police departments and state agencies for information on how they use automated license plate readers (ALPRs) to track and record drivers' movements.
ALPRs are cameras mounted on patrol cars or on stationary objects along roads - such as telephone poles or the underside of bridges - that snap a photograph of every license plate that enters their fields of view. Typically, each photo is time-, date-, and GPS-stamped, stored, and sent to a database, which provides an alert to a patrol officer whenever a match or "hit" appears. The cameras can snap several thousand plates an hour.
ALPRs are spreading rapidly around the country, but the public has little information about how they are used to track motorists' movements, including how long data collected by ALPRs is stored and whether local police departments pool this information in state, regional, or national databases. The ACLU hopes to find out if ALPRs are being used as a tool for mass routine location tracking and surveillance and to collect and store information not just on people suspected of crimes but on every single motorist.
The ACLU-VT has sent three requests as part of the effort. The first is being sent to the Homeland Security Unit of the Vermont Department of Public Safety. DPS receives federal Homeland Security grants, the funding mechanism for many ALPR systems. The request asks for information about how federal grant money is used to pay for ALPR systems, what municipalities in Vermont have received federal grants for ALPR systems, and how ALPR data is shared outside of Vermont. Because the ACLU of Vermont believes that nearly a dozen Vermont cities and towns already have the systems, the request will fill out public knowledge of where ALPR systems are being used and how Vermonters' movement data is handled.
The second and third requests are to agencies using ALPRs: the Vermont State Police and the Town of Hartford. These requests seek information about what ALPR systems are in use by those agencies, how much data is captured, how long it is stored, and what policies govern the use of ALPRs.
"Freedom of movement is one of our core rights," said Allen Gilbert, ACLU-VT executive director. "The information gathered by ALPRs is legitimate if it's used to solve crimes. But if you haven't committed a crime, information about your whereabouts should not be retained or shared with others. None of us wants to live in a world where we are constantly tracked."
In some states, concerns over ALPRs have caught the attention of state legislators. In Utah, lawmakers complained when the federal Drug Enforcement Administration wanted to install ALPRs along certain stretches of the state's main north-south highway, I-15. Last month the DEA withdrew its request.
"Tracking and recording people's movements raises serious privacy concerns, because where we go can reveal a great deal about us, including visits to doctor's offices, political meetings, and friends." said Dan Barrett, ACLU-VT staff attorney. "We need legal protections to limit the collection, retention and sharing of our travel information, but the first step in obtaining those protections is to determine how extensive the surveillance problem is."