There’s a good chance information about your location is being kept on file in a police database.
U.S. police departments are increasingly adopting automatic license plate readers that keep track of your location according to information released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) today. Those documents show that many departments retain that information for years, regardless of whether or not it pertains to an innocent person.
“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,” ACLU staff attorney Catherine Crump said. “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.”
Federal grants are supporting the increasing use of the systems, which can be installed in police cruisers or on objects like street signs or bridges. Every license plate that passes by one of the cameras is photographed. Software then reads and records the number, which is sent to a database.
The system isn’t necessarily all bad. For example, a stolen car can be found much more quickly if it passes one of the cameras. License plates associated with a stolen car can be recognized, aiding police in finding the vehicle.
Only 47 out of every million plates scanned in Maryland were linked to a stolen car or person wanted for a serious crime, but the collected information is remaining in police databases. Certain departments hold information indefinitely while others delete it after days or weeks.
But that might not be the only way the scanners can be used. Some of the documents uncovered by ACLU Freedom of Information inquires reveal disturbingly cavalier attitudes among certain police departments toward the devices.
According to the ACLU, typical police policies dictate that reasonable suspicion isn’t required for an officer to scan license plates. The police department in Scarsdale, New York’s documents say device use “is only limited by the officer’s imagination.”
Police aren’t the only ones using the devices either. A private company called Vigilant Solutions sets the cameras up and makes data available to police. The company holds over 800 million license plate location records and caters to over 2,200 law enforcement agencies.