The American Civil Liberties Union has released documents confirming that police license plate readers capture vast amounts of data on innocent people, and in many instances this intelligence is kept forever.
According to documents obtained through a number of Freedom of Information Act requests filed by ACLU offices across the United States, law enforcement agencies are tracking the whereabouts of innocent persons en masse by utilizing a still up-and-coming technology.
License place readers are among the latest items being regularly added to the arsenal of law enforcement gizmos and gadgets, but documents obtained through the FOIA requests have prompted the ACLU to acknowledge that safeguards that would properly protect the privacy of Americans are largely absent.
When a police department deploys license plate readers on top of patrol cars or at fixed locations, it lets officers see a snapshot of every vehicle that passes by a particular point. From there, that information can be matched against a database that contains automobiles involved in criminal investigations or cars whose owners may already be in trouble with the law. According to the ACLU, though, the data that’s collected and routinely stored reveal much more than the location of suspected scofflaws.
“At first the captured plate data was used just to check against lists of cars law enforcement hoped to locate for various reasons,” ACLU staff attorney Catherine Crump wrote on the non-profit group’s website Wednesday morning. “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,”she wrote.
Crump and company filed FOIA requests to agencies in 38 states and Washington, DC compelling police departments there to provide them with information detailing their use of license plate readers. In response, the ACLU received 26,000 pages of information that it has analyzed and now made public.
Additionally, the ACLU has released “You Are Being Tracked,” a 37-page report that offers the background on a technology that’s being regularly used notwithstanding objections from civil libertarians and others. Those objections, noted Crump, come amid two other large issues: the government’s increasing use of significantly telling surveillance devices and the public’s mass ignorance about the issue.
“As it becomes increasingly clear that ours is an era of mass surveillance facilitated by ever cheaper and more powerful computing technology, it is critical we learn how this technology is being used,” Crump wrote. “License plate readers are just one example of a disturbing phenomenon: the government is increasingly using new technology to collect information about all of us, all the time and to store it forever – providing a complete record of our lives for it to access at will.”
And while telephony metadata, Internet inbox intelligence and IP records can reveal an awful lot, scanning city streets and logging the locations of cars can provide the police with more than just a lot of useless data. License plate readers do occasionally prove effect with regards to locating criminal suspects or cars involved in crimes, but they are also allowing police to slowly build profiles painting a picture of the daily, weekly or annual driving habits of anyone, anywhere.
“A person who knows all of another’s travels can deduce whether he is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts,” the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled in 2010.
According to “You Are Being Tracked,” license plate readers are configured to store not just snap shots of nearby autos, but also the license plate number, the date, time and location. All of this data is then placed into a local database that can in many instances by shared with other regional systems across the country.
“As a result,” reads the report, “these data are retained permanently and shared widely with few or no restrictions on how they can be used.”
The ACLU’s research has sparsely linked the use of license plate readers to solving criminal investigations, but it has uncovered a number of shocking statistics about how much information is being kept and what that could do to influence the way people interact outside of their homes.
“The implementation of automatic license plate readers poses serious privacy and other civil liberties threats,” the report read. “More and more cameras, longer retention periods and widespread sharing allow law enforcement agents to assemble the individual puzzle pieces of where we have been over time into a single, high-resolution image of our lives. The knowledge that one is subject to constant monitoring can chill the exercise of our cherished rights to free speech and association.”
“If not properly secured, license plate reader databases open the door to abusive tracking, enabling anyone with access to pry into the lives of his boss, his ex-wife or his romantic, political or workplace rivals.”
In Maryland, for example, the Greenbelt Police Department feeds information picked up from license plate readers to the state’s fusion center — a federally assisted data facility that collects all sorts of information sent from agencies, including surveillance camera footage and Federal Bureau of Investigation field reports. That information can then easily be sent to other fusion centers, and the ACLU notes that the Greenbelt facility already participates in a program that puts its data into the hands of DC, Virginia and other out-of-state authorities.
Coupled with the FBI’s current plan to put the driver’s license photos of 14 million Americans in one database accessible to agents anywhere by next year, the government is quickly providing investigators with the means to create fully detailed dossiers on anyone, brimming with everything from where someone goes shopping and how they get to the store, to the individualized biometric information about a person’s left eyeball.
But are these practices doing any good? With regards to the license plate readers, the ACLU doesn’t seem to think they’re all that effective. In the instance of readers deployed across Maryland, the ACLU noted that for every one million plates read, only 47 were potentially associated with more serious crimes, such as a stolen vehicle, a violent gang or a sex offender. They add, however, that “even these 47 alerts may not have helped the police catch criminals or prevent crimes. While people on the violent gang, terrorist, and sex offender lists are under general suspicion, they are not necessarily wanted for any present wrongdoing.”
“In short, Maryland’s license plate readers collect massive amounts of data, almost none of which are tied to any known or even suspected wrongdoing,” wrote the ACLU.
In some jurisdictions, that information is then held forever. FOIA requests obtained by the ACLU estimated that authorities in Jersey City, New Jersey have accumulated 10 million license plate records as of last year — in a town of only 250,000 — because retention policies allow officials to keep that data for five years. In Milpitas, California — a town with roughly four times the population — has no retention policy and has picked up around 4.7 million plates.