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Travelers checks: Automatic License Plate Readers track your every move

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  July 14, 2011 04:08 PM

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ACLU of Massachusetts privacy rights coordinator Kade Crockford wrote the following guest blog.

Remember the furor this spring, when we learned that iPhones and other mobile devices were logging every move their users made? Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs) would do something similar to your car.

Late last year, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts advertised a $300,000 grant from the federal Department of Transportation for the purchase of ALPRs. Over 90 agencies in the state applied; 27 were given the grant money.

Many of these towns (see a full list here) have already implemented the technology. At least one, Brookline, is currently struggling with whether or not to accept the funds and implement an ALPR.

ALPRs are not ordinary cameras. Attached to police cruisers, or fixed on telephone poles or other stationary places, the cameras snap an image of nearly every license plate they encounter. The device produces a file for each image captured, which includes searchable text displaying the time, date and GPS location of the car when and where the plate was ‘read’. This information is fed into a database, where it can be shared with other agencies and databases, and “mined” or analyzed.

One of the major problems with ALPR technology is that it sucks up all license plates, not simply those associated with people suspected of wrongdoing. Therefore as the technology expands, it is possible that law enforcement will be able to track your movements with incredible precision as you go about your daily life in your car. Without proper privacy protections backed by the force of law, ALPRs become yet another tracking technology.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of agencies using these machines have little to no regulation controlling their use. The state legislature in Massachusetts has yet to act to protect us from this kind of tracking.

And the technology is spreading fast. ALPRs are the new rage in law enforcement. A New York Times article from a few months ago described how the NYPD is rapidly expanding its ALPR program. The city currently has hundreds of the cameras, operating out of its counter terrorism office. Combined with its thousands of surveillance cameras and its advanced database mining programs, the NYPD aims to create a “ring of steel” in downtown Manhattan, allowing for near total surveillance over the people in that area.

Here in Massachusetts, police are just beginning to use ALPR technology. The Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS), the agency that distributed the grant monies to cities and towns in the state, clearly stipulated in its initial grant advisory that any agency receiving funds for ALPR would be required to submit all of their captured data to the state criminal justice database, CJIS.

That is a huge problem for our personal privacy rights because CJIS is accessible to other state police and the federal government, including the FBI. Therefore unless we institute good privacy protections at the state level, we can’t be sure our travel information isn’t being shared with the massive, growing surveillance regime at the federal level.

Additionally, there is no reason to believe that ALPR data isn’t a public record. That means anyone could request the data from the state and using available computer software put together an accurate map of your whereabouts and travel patterns—much like programmers did within days of discovering that iPhones and other mobile devices were logging every move their users made. Shudder to think the effect this would have for people facing domestic violence or stalkers.

As the Globe reported yesterday, Brookline is in the midst of debating whether or not to accept the grant from the state for an ALPR. The ACLUm has advocated that the Board of Selectmen in that town vote ‘no’, because law-abiding Brookline residents shouldn’t fear that their personal travel information is being shared with the state or federal government.

Tens of Brookline residents made their voices heard before a public hearing on July 12, and echoed the ACLUm’s sentiments. The Board of Selectmen suggested that they are considering declining the grant monies because they don’t want to lose control over the private data of Brookline residents. Stay tuned for developments in that town.

Illustrating how important this issue is for all US residents, the US Court of Appeals of the DC Circuit ruled last year that the government needed a warrant to use another tracking technology, GPS. The ruling speaks powerfully about how our location information reveals personal details about our lives:

“A person who knows all of another’s travels can deduce whether he is a weekly churchgoer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups – and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.”

In the United States we prize our freedom on the open road. Let’s fight in Massachusetts to keep our travel patterns---and therefore our private lives---our business, not the business of government spooks. Join us to learn more or to get involved.

If you live in a town that’s received money from EOPSS for ALPR technology and want to know more about how the data is shared and stored, get in touch!

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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