CLEVELAND – Police departments across the country are expanding their use of automatic license plate readers (ALPR’s) to track the location of American drivers, but few have meaningful rules in place to protect drivers’ privacy rights, according to documents compiled in a new ACLU report titled You Are Being Tracked: How License Plate Readers Are Being Used To Record Americans’ Movements.
“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,” said ACLU Staff Attorney Catherine Crump, the report’s lead author. “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.”
Last summer, ACLU affiliates in 38 states, including Ohio, filed nearly 600 public records requests asking federal, state, and local agencies how they use ALPR’s. The resulting documents show that policies on how long agencies keep this data vary widely. Some departments delete records within days or weeks, some keep them for years, while others have no deletion policy at all, meaning they can retain them forever.
Ohio represents a mixed bag. The Ohio State Highway Patrol (OSHP) has a good policy, which requires all license plate captures that do not raise a flag to be deleted immediately. It further specifies that data cannot be collected, stored, or shared for the purpose of data mining. However, the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office retains data for 90 days and public records have not been collected from many other agencies, making their ALPR policies a mystery.
“The OSHP policy proves that law enforcement agencies can still do their jobs while protecting the privacy of innocent people,” said ACLU of Ohio Policy Coordinator Melissa Bilancini. “Ultimately we support state legislation that would create standards for all law enforcement agencies that ensure transparency and protect privacy.”
“Police have a job to do and we respect that, but there is no good reason to store license plate data tracking the movements of innocent people in a government database,” added Bilancini. “Nor is there any justification for sharing this data with third parties who have no oversight. Without clear standards, these kinds of privacy violations are inevitable.”
The ACLU report includes more than a dozen specific recommendations for government use of license plate scanner systems, including: reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred before police can examine scanner data; rapid deletion of records unless there are legitimate reasons to retain them; and, allowing citizens to find out if their cars’ location history is in a law enforcement database.
The report, an interactive map with links to the documents, and an interactive slide show are available at: aclu.org/plates