Wednesday, July 17, 2013

ACLU says license-plate readers risk violating privacy rights

Posted By on Wed, Jul 17, 2013 at 5:05 PM

  • ACLU

Last year, the Gazette's Lance Benzel wrote a great story about the license-plate scanners being used by the Colorado Springs Police Department. At the time, the force had three such readers helping create a database of 1.1 million vehicles.

"Colorado Springs police reports show that use of license-plate readers has allowed the city’s police department to construct a searchable databank containing hundreds of thousands of license plates belonging to ordinary drivers," Benzel reported Aug. 31, 2012, "with each entry disclosing when, and where, police last spied a certain vehicle.

"The information — which potentially gives investigators a view into where people travel and how they spend their time — is characterized in internal police documents as a 'massive intelligence database.'"

Now comes the American Civil Liberties Union with a new report entitled "You Are Being Tracked," reiterating that premise.

"The study found that not only are license plate scanners widely deployed, but few police departments place any substantial restrictions on how they can be used," reads a release from the ACLU of Colorado. "A tiny fraction of the license plate scans are flagged as 'hits.' For example, in Maryland, for every million plates read, only 47 (0.005 percent) were potentially associated with a stolen car or a person wanted for a serious crime. Yet, the documents show that many police departments are storing — for long periods of time — huge numbers of records on scanned plates that do not return hits.

"In Colorado, for example, Commerce City and Aurora keep all driver location data from automated license readers for two years. In Aurora, some scans are then transferred to a database for indefinite retention."

The report comes after the organization, with help from affiliates, filed roughly 600 open-records requests in 37 states regarding government use of the scanners.

"License plate scanners can be a legitimate tool for law enforcement when their use is narrowly tailored and focused on an ongoing criminal investigation,” says Denise Maes, the ACLU of Colorado's public policy director, in the release. "But these documents show that police departments around the state are using license plate scanners to conduct broad, invasive surveillance of all citizens in case they might someday commit a crime.”

Colorado Springs Police Department spokeswoman Barbara Miller says the department keeps the data for one year from the date it was collected.

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