License Plate Reader Technology Sparks Lawsuit

By Valerie Insinna

The American Civil Liberties Union sued two departments, including Homeland Security, 38 states and the District of Columbia in September over documents related to the federal government’s use of automatic license plate readers.

The readers can be mounted on cars or objects such as stoplights and capture images of up to 1,800 license plate numbers per minute. These numbers are run through databases for outstanding warrants, stolen vehicles or wanted individuals, alerting law enforcement when a match is found.

However, the devices also store the time, date and location of each vehicle. The ACLU is concerned that federal agencies could be using them for tracking the movements of citizens, which it believes would be a major invasion of privacy.

Although the ACLU cites no specific instances of federal agencies employing the readers in this way, documents released by the Boston Police Department state that officers may deploy these devices “to a defined geographical area for purposes of an ongoing investigation or an intelligence gathering operation.” The ACLU said this may extend to tracking individuals who are attending services at a mosque or going to an anti-war protest.

DHS grants can be used by state and local law enforcement agencies to purchase the readers, the ACLU said. 

The suit, filed by the national and Massachusetts branches of the ACLU against the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, comes after they failed to release records within the 20 working day deadline for Freedom of Information Act requests. The ACLU filed requests for information in July.

A spokesman for the Justice Department said the agency had no comment.

Allie Bohm, an advocacy and policy strategist for the ACLU, said the organization hopes to learn more about whether the federal government uses the readers and if data is shared among law enforcement agencies.

The ACLU opposes the manner in which local law enforcement agencies have collected this information. In Boston, data collected from the devices is stored in a private database called CopLink, which is available to any police officer with access to the database, even those outside of Boston, she said.

The ACLU also is concerned about how long law enforcement is storing data.

“The license plate scanners actually are often used for legitimate purposes, but they can be used for legitimate purposes without storing information on innocent drivers either indefinitely or for very, very long periods of time,” Bohm said.

In Boston, for example, police store license plate information for 90 days, but authorities may store information longer for investigative purposes.

Before filing suit, the ACLU obtained records from the Department of Transportation and a sub-agency of the Department of Justice, but no further records have been obtained.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto

Topics: Homeland Security, DHS Policy

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