Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Where You At?: Privacy Concerns with Automated License Plate Readers
Two months have passed since the ACLU and its associates sent a letter under the Freedom of Information Act to the DOJ, DOT, and DHS requesting the government’s automated license plate readers’ (ALPR) records. After little to no response the ACLU of Massachusetts was obligated to file suit against the DOJ and the DHS in federal court on September 25th.
The ACLU’s main concern is focused on why and how the government is using these records in regards to ordinary citizens.
On July 30, the ACLU filed an open-records request, also referred to as a Freedom of Information Act request, asking the government to provide records and information in regards to the ALPR’s uses since January 1, 2006. The demands were by no means “light lifting”; the letter was roughly six pages in length. Yet, most American citizens would have found it justified, especially since the government’s use of ALPRs continues to expand leading to a further invasion of ordinary citizens’ privacy rights.
The ALPRs are small radio sized boxes and are adhered to police cars or other static objects along the roadways. A reader can snap over 1,000 pictures of license plates per minute, while also noting the time, date and location of the vehicle. Once a license plate number is obtained the reader is able to search criminal databases. The device is beneficial for tracking stolen cars, wanted criminals and those with expired registrations, but also records mass amounts ordinary citizens’ information. Thus, the ACLU is alarmed with the amount of information obtained by the readers and how it is being protected and used. The federal agencies' failure to respond to the ACLU’s requests raised even greater concerns and forced the ACLU to seek legal action.
The ALPRs are unfortunately just another form of government surveillance being disputed in the courts. A Wall Street Journal analysis states that the government records information about an ordinary American citizen in 20 different manners a day. But unlike cell phones and online tracking, license plates do not have an off button and chances are if you're driving around or even parked at Kwiki Mart, the federal government knows this and has your daily activities on file. Clearly this raises Fourteenth Amendment privacy concerns specifically in regards to ordinary citizens whose privacy freedoms are not diminished by a criminal record.
Furthermore, the expense of surveillance technology, including the ALPRs has diminished throughout the years, to the extent that even private entities have invested in the devices. Many are also concerned as whether or not the current databases are safe from hackers. Considering the massive amount of information ALPRs record on daily basis what would happen if they were hacked or information was leaked? Forget the government watching your every move. What about criminals, stalkers or your mom?!
The underlying focus of the ACLU is to learn what the federal government is doing with all this information. It is easy to assume that the ALPRs can or soon will be combined with speed detectors and other video surveillance. Could this mean traffic tickets will soon be sent and received in the mail? The influx on most district or traffic courts would be astronomical, as if these courts are not already busy enough.
Lastly, could this information be used as evidence in trial cases, and if so, how accurate is the information? Most of photographs are only of the license plate and do not include the passengers, car make, or model. Hopefully, the ACLU’s recent legal actions will soon shed some light on ALPRs and how they may be infringing on our privacy rights.
© Copyright 2010 The Journal of High Technology Law, Suffolk University Law School
Suite 450B | 120 Tremont Street | Boston | MA | 02108-4977 | Legal and Copyright Information