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License Plate Readers Spur Privacy Concerns

  • Jeff Swicord

Privacy advocates, already reeling from leaks on the government's surveillance of private citizens, have found another concern. Law enforcement agencies across the U.S. are using powerful camera technology to scan license plates and build databases on the movements of millions of Americans.

Arlington County Police Detective Mohammed Tabibi is with the auto theft unit. He uses license plate readers, or LPR’s, mounted on the hood of his car, to look for stolen vehicles.

“It has paid dividends. We have caught some people involved in some serious crimes because of LPR. And I know it has helped out a lot of agencies in the area as well," said Tabibi.

The use of LPRs is growing across the United States. Some are mounted on poles, others on cars, and privacy groups are concerned. They say the information is being stored on computer servers and shared with other local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

“What they are also doing is storing everybody’s time, place, and location," said Jay Stanley, who is with the American Civil Liberties Union. "And many police departments are holding that information indefinitely. You know in our society, the government doesn’t follow you and invade your privacy and track you unless it has a specific reason that you are involved in wrongdoing."

Arlington Police Captain Kevin Rearden heads the Homeland Security division. He says LPR information is kept for six months. But other law enforcement agencies, with access to their server, may store it indefinitely.

“We originally had a two-month period, and the detectives requested the chief extend it to six months because they found in so many investigations, keeping it for two months wasn’t long enough," said Rearden.

Privacy advocates say they have no problem with police departments scanning license plates to investigate crimes. But they're opposed to storing information for long periods of time.

“...Once you are past a certain amount of time, it is very unlikely it is going to be useful. Meanwhile we are creating this giant infrastructure for tracking people," said Stanley. “They keep bringing up the tracking word. And if I went out and ran your tag in our server, I would not be able to track you. I would be lucky if I could put [you in] a few places in Arlington in a particular time. By no stretch of the imagination would I be able to track you,"

But the ACLU says Americans need to know more about LPR technology.

It has filed suit in federal court against the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security to see how federal officials are using the LPR information they acquire.