ACLU Seeks Information about License Plate Readers
The American Civil Liberties Union is asking police departments across the country how they use automatic license plate readers to track people’s movements. Information requests were sent by the organization yesterday to departments in 38 states, including Texas. The Austin Police Department’s plate-reading system is currently defunct, but it is seeking to resurrect it.
In 2009, the APD put automatic license plate readers on a couple of patrol cars. Those vehicles roamed around the city and through parking lots, capturing images of virtually every license plate they could. Each time one of these cameras took a picture of a plate, it also recorded its geographic location and some other data.
Over the course of about three years, the Austin Police Department recorded information from hundreds of thousands of license plates. Those records are retained indefinitely. Eric Burnsed is a senior officer with the APD. His job is to know about the latest and greatest law-enforcement technology.
“I’ve accessed and looked for mine, just to see if it’s working properly,” Burnsed says. “I’m in there probably five or six times.”
But the APD’s license plate-scanning system is not in use anymore because the California company that built it, PlateScan, went out of business in 2011. Burnsed says APD would very much like to acquire a new system and deploy scanners more widely – perhaps not just on patrol cars, but also in stationary locations like on speed-limit signs.
“[There are] so many ways you can actually use these applications that would benefit people,” Burnsed says. “If we’ve got a high-crime area where there’s burglaries in a residential neighborhood, we could – theoretically – take one of these and mount it to anything in that area.”
In fact, the existing database has already helped the department solve crimes. Sergeant Felecia Williams-Dennis of the APD says they’ve been able to locate stolen cars with this data. And in one case, they captured a person suspected of indecent exposure.
“This is a tool to help us help the citizens – to keep the community safe and to recover their property,” Williams-Dennis says. “This gives us an avenue to do that using the least amount of manpower and resources in the most efficient manner.”
Automatic license plate readers are just one part of a new generation of law-enforcement technology that legislatures and courts have not fully caught up with. The plate-reading system is a powerful crime-fighting tool, but requires people to surrender information about their location to police.
“I think part of the problem with the way this technology works is that it’s so powerful. So much information is gathered,” Simpson says. “And when this technology gets really far ahead of what people even understand is possible, it’s really hard to have a community standard of privacy.”
Simpson points to a January 2012 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided unanimously that police must obtain warrants before using GPS technology to track suspects.
“The way that automatic license plate readers function would be very similar to that,” Simpson says. “It sounds like if you just collect all the data, there would be plenty of people that you could identify their movement without any warrant. It would kind of be suspicionless.”
Right now, the APD doesn’t have money to acquire a new license plate scanning system, but it could apply for grants from the federal government.
The ACLU also filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Transportation to learn more about how the federal government is funding the expansion of automatic license plate readers, how many grants will be given and which departments will receive them.