Photo: Flickr/D’oh Boy
The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security for information about the feds’ use of automatic licence plate readers.The readers, mounted on police cars or stationary objects, can process up to 1,800 licence plates per minute, according to the ACLU.
The constant stream of data allows police to check plates against databases for things like stolen vehicles, wanted individuals, expired registrations, and warrants.
However, since the readers record the time and location of every licence plate they read, the ACLU says, the practice creates huge databases that can potentially track the lives of millions of people who have not committed any crimes.
“If licence plate readers are being used as a tool for mass routine location tracking and surveillance, we need to know more about it,” ACLU attorney Catherine Crump said in a statement. “The public should have an informed debate about the costs and benefits of this technology before we spend millions of dollars on it.”
The plaintiffs cite a 2009 report on the privacy impact of the readers written by the International Association of Chiefs of Police that states “mobile LPR cameras may collect the licence 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.”
Still, police in New York have credited the readers with providing clues to help solve homicides and other crimes, The New York Times reported last year, in an article that also noted the ACLU’s concerns.
The ACLU filed suit after the Justice Department and DHS failed to respond to a FOIA request for information about which federal agencies operate the readers, how the data is shared, how secure the data is, and if there are any privacy policies in place to protect drivers.
“The places you go say a lot about who you are,” ACLU Massachusetts attorney Laura Rótolo said. “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.”
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