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ACLU Releases Documents on License Plate Scanners From 300 Police Departments
ACLU Releases Documents on License Plate Scanners From Some 300 Police Departments Nationwide
July 17, NEW YORK – Police departments around the country are rapidly expanding their use of automatic license plate readers to track the location of American 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 spread of these scanners is creating what are, in effect, government location tracking systems recording the movements of many millions of innocent Americans in huge databases," said ACLU Staff Attorney Catherine Crump, the report's lead author. "We don't object to the use of these systems to flag cars that are stolen or belong to fugitives, but these documents show a dire need for rules to make sure that this technology isn't used for unbridled government surveillance."
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.
Last summer, ACLU affiliates in 38 states and Washington filed nearly 600 freedom of information requests asking federal, state, and local agencies how they use the readers. The 26,000 pages of documents produced by the agencies that responded – about half – include training materials, internal memos, and policy statements. The results and analysis 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. The approach in Pittsburg, Calif., is typical: a police policy document there says that license plate readers can be used for "any routine patrol operation or criminal investigation," adding, "reasonable suspicion or probable cause is not required." While many police departments do prohibit police officers from using license plate readers for personal uses such as tracking friends, these are the only restrictions. As New York's Scarsdale Police Department put it in one document, the use of license plate readers "is only limited by the officer's imagination."
A tiny fraction of the license plate scans are flagged as "hits." For example, in Maryland, for every million plates read, only 47 (0.005 percent) were potentially associated with a stolen car or a person wanted for a serious crime. Yet, the documents show that many police departments are storing – for long periods of time – huge numbers of records on scanned plates that do not return hits. For example, police in Jersey City, N.J., recorded 2.1 million plate reads last year. As of August 2012, Grapevine, Texas, had 2 million plate reads stored and Milpitas, Calif., had 4.7 million.
The documents show that policies on how long police keep this data vary widely. Some departments delete records within days or weeks, some keep them for years, while others have no deletion policy at all, meaning they can retain them forever. For example, Jersey City deletes the records after five years, and Grapevine and Milpitas have no deletion policy. In contrast, the Minnesota State Patrol deletes records after 48 hours, and Brookline, Mass., keeps records for 14 days. Maine and Arkansas have passed laws prohibiting the police from retaining the license plate location records of innocent drivers for extended periods.
"The fact that some jurisdictions delete the records quickly shows that it is a completely reasonable and workable policy. We need to see more laws and policies in place that let police protect both public safety and privacy," said Allie Bohm, ACLU advocacy and policy strategist. "The police should not be storing data about people who are not even suspected of doing anything wrong."
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.
License plate readers are used not only by police but also by private companies, which themselves make their data available to police with little or no oversight or privacy protections. One of these private databases, run by a company called Vigilant Solutions, holds over 800 million license plate location records and is used by over 2,200 law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
"Police departments should not use databases that do not have adequate private protections in place," said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Project at the ACLU of Massachusetts.
A little noticed surveillance technology, designed to track the movements of every passing driver, is fast proliferating on America’s streets. Automatic license plate readers, mounted on police cars or on objects like road signs and bridges, use small, high-speed cameras to photograph thousands of plates per minute.
The information captured by the readers – including the license plate number, and the date, time, and location of every scan – is being collected and sometimes pooled into regional sharing systems. As a result, enormous databases of innocent motorists’ location information are growing rapidly. This information is often retained for years or even indefinitely, with few or no restrictions to protect privacy rights.
The documents paint a startling picture of a technology deployed with too few rules that is becoming a tool for mass routine location tracking and surveillance. License plate readers can serve a legitimate law enforcement purpose when they alert police to the location of a car associated with a criminal investigation. But such instances account for a tiny fraction of license plate scans, and too many police departments are storing millions of records about innocent drivers. Moreover, private companies are also using license plate readers and sharing the information they collect with police with little or no oversight or privacy protections. A lack of regulation means that policies governing how long our location data is kept vary widely.
Automatic license plate readers have the potential to create permanent records of virtually everywhere any of us has driven, radically transforming the consequences of leaving home to pursue private life, and opening up many opportunities for abuse. The tracking of people’s location constitutes a significant invasion of privacy, which can reveal many things about their lives, such as what friends, doctors, protests, political events, or churches a person may visit.
In our society, it is a core principle that the government does not invade people’s privacy and collect information about citizens’ innocent activities just in case they do something wrong. Clear regulations must be put in place to keep the government from tracking our movements on a massive scale.
As the technology spreads, the ACLU calls for the adoption of legislation and law enforcement agency policies adhering to the following principles:
License plate readers may be used by law enforcement agencies only to investigate hits and in other circumstances in which law enforcement agents reasonably believe that the plate data are relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation.
The government must not store data about innocent people for any lengthy period. Unless plate data has been flagged, retention periods should be measured in days or weeks, not months and certainly not years.
People should be able to find out if plate data of vehicles registered to them are contained in a law enforcement agency’s database.
Law enforcement agencies should not share license plate reader data with third parties that do not follow proper retention and access principles. They should also be transparent regarding with whom they share license plate reader data.
Any entity that uses license plate readers should be required to report its usage publicly on at least an annual basis.
By Mica Moore, ACLU & Bennett Stein, ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, July 23, 2013
Location tracking has far-reaching implications for the way we live, even if we don't think we've done anything wrong. Our recent report, "You Are Being Tracked," shows that automatic license plate readers allow law enforcement to track every car on the road, not just those relevant to an investigation. This type of widespread tracking endangers our rights of protest and association and has the potential to reach deep into our lives and alter our daily decision making.
License plate readers are poised to become commonplace. As we note in our report:
"...as license plate readers have proliferated, they no longer capture individuals' movements at only a few points. Increasingly, they are capturing drivers' locations outside church, the doctor's office, and school, giving law enforcement and private companies that run the largest databases the ability to build detailed pictures of our lives."
Knowing or suspecting that we're being watched can stop us from engaging in certain kinds of behavior, even when it's perfectly lawful. For example, it might affect our decision to go to a certain barber (what would my other barber say?), meet up with a friend (what would my mom say?), eat at a restaurant (what would my trainer say?), or take the scenic route (is it suspicious that I'm not using my normal route?). Surveillance changes the way we make daily decisions—the same way that a rapidly approaching police car in your rearview mirror may make you feel nervous even when you are driving completely lawfully.
And it doesn't necessarily matter that it's not your mom or your trainer behind the license plate reader pointed at your car. Once your location information is collected and stored by a third party, you have lost control over it, and there is no way to know whose hands it will end up in. We acknowledge this instinctively when we feel discomfort about being watched or followed by anyone, not just those who are most consequential in our lives. When people feel that their movements may be recorded, they feel less comfortable traveling freely and engaging in activities that might be controversial or stigmatizing, even when those activities are important or beneficial.
Even the police have acknowledged the chilling effects of surveillance. A 2011 report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) noted that individuals may become "more cautious in the exercise of their protected rights of expression, protest, association, and political participation" due to license plate reader systems. The IACP report continues:
"Recording driving habits could implicate First Amendment concerns. Specifically, LPR systems have the ability to record vehicles' attendance at locations or events that, although lawful and public, may be considered private. For example, mobile LPR units could read and collect the license plate numbers of vehicles parked at addiction counseling meetings, doctors' offices, health clinics, or even staging areas for political protests."
This chilling effect may be especially pronounced for license plate reader data collection, where information about where you travel can be used to infer information about who you are. In some cases, merely having your car parked in a certain area may be enough to gain law enforcement scrutiny. The IACP report remarks that it may be useful to know whether a car was parked near a domestic violence call or previous crime scene, whether or not the owner of that vehicle was involved.
Unfortunately, these examples are far from improbable. In New York City, police officers used unmarked vehicles with license plate readers to track congregants at local mosques. In Colorado, as one of our public records requests revealed (page 7933 of this document), the Adams County Sheriff's Department demonstrated license plate reader technology by singling out music lovers for surveillance, sweeping a rave party and a concert at a country-western bar (first it's the line dancers, next they'll come for the swing dancers, and then the bedroom mirror dancers?).
In order to limit the chilling effects of this new technology, our report recommends a strict retention policy:
"Law enforcement agencies must not store data about innocent people for any lengthy period. Unless plate data has been flagged, retention periods should be measured in days or weeks, not months, and certainly not years."