ACLU Releases Report Criticizing Police Use of License Plate Readers

July 31st, 2013

On the heels of the NSA data collection leaks, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has released a report criticizing United States (U.S.) law enforcement agencies for their use of license plate readers as an infringement of privacy. A technology that, for the past several years police departments have used to combat routine crime, as well as prevent terrorist acts on American soil.

“Automatic license plate readers are the most widespread location tracking technology you’ve probably never heard of, mounted on patrol cars or stationary objects like bridges, they snap photos of every passing car, recording their plate numbers, times, and locations,” the ACLU report indicates.  “At first the captured plate data was used just to check against lists of cars law enforcement hoped to locate for various reasons (to act on arrest warrants, find stolen cars, etc.). But increasingly, all of this data is being fed into massive databases that contain the location information of many millions of innocent Americans stretching back for months or even years.”

According to the ACLU, license plate readers would pose few civil liberty risks if they were only used to check plates against a hot list of stolen or wanted plates. But to use this technology to photograph license plates, store times or locations and then place this information into a database to be used at a later time is a violation of civil liberties.

The 34 page report also indicates that “databases of license plate reader information create opportunities for institutional abuse, such as using them to identify protest attendees merely because these individuals have exercised their First Amendment-protected right to free speech.” Maryland is one of 28 states sampled during the ACLU study and in Maryland, only 0.2 percent or 1 in every 500 plates, were associated with a crime or wrong-doing.

While focusing on the privacy issues of license plate readers, the ACLU report barely scratched the surface on the effectiveness of this technology. Police use this technology not only to apprehend car thieves and wanted persons, but it is a very useful tool when Amber alerts are activated and police are able to safely locate and return kidnapped children to their parents.

As a former Public Safety Director in Prince George’s County Maryland, I chaired a task force that included police, judges, insurance executives and citizens to combat the rising number of auto thefts and carjacks that plagued the area. In 2005, Prince George’s County led the state of Maryland in auto thefts. As part of our comprehensive strategy, we leveraged license plate reader technology and reduced auto thefts by 40 percent during their first 12 months of use in the County.

The summary of the ACLU report infers that government officials can store license plate data and use it for tracking the movements of people to ascertain if they are going to political events, places of worship, same-sex establishments, gun stores or abortion clinics. However, the ACLU readily admits that all these instances are theoretical and during their investigation, they uncovered no cases of abuse by police or governments.

After the attacks of September 11th, the Boston Marathon bombings and other terrorist acts perpetrated on American soil, our first line of defense in preventing future attacks are the men and women in law enforcement. Terrorists have proven that they would go to great lengths to kill or injure innocent Americans.  If we are to win the war on terror, we must be vigilant and we absolutely must use all technology available to prevent another attack.

However, we must balance our efforts in our war on terrorism – every person that travels our roadways is not a potential criminal or terrorist. The challenge is to defeat terrorism while at the same time preserving the rights of American citizens. Law enforcement must develop strict guidelines on the use of license plate readers and similar technology, and provide assurances that abuse does not occur. We should encourage public safety to work with the ACLU and similar organizations to continue our efforts to combat terrorism in a judicious and fair manner. One more life lost as a result of a terrorist act is one life to many.

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