RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia is raising privacy concerns about law enforcement's use of automated cameras that photograph license plates of vehicles as they pass by.
The Virginia group sent requests Monday to the Virginia State Police, the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office and police departments in Fairfax County, Virginia Beach, Prince William County, Chesterfield County, Henrico County, Norfolk, Chesapeake, Arlington County, Richmond City, Harrisonburg, Lynchburg, Danville, Bristol, and Warrenton.
The requests seek information about how the agencies are using the license plate readers. Thirty-four ACLU affiliates across the nation sent similar requests.
Catherine Crump with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project says the readers allow police to track motorists' locations and store that information forever.
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ACLU of Virginia Press Release
ACLU Seeks Details on Automatic License
Richmond, VA - July 30, 2012 - The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia today joined with 35 other ACLU affiliates across the nation in sending information requests to local police departments and state agencies demanding information on how they use automatic license plate readers (ALPR) to track and record Americans' movements.
"The notion that law enforcement agencies are tracking and storing information about Virginian's whereabouts as they drive raises serious privacy concerns," said ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg. We want to learn how widespread this practice is in Virginia, and what law enforcement agencies are doing with this information."
ALPRs are cameras mounted on patrol cars or on stationary objects along roads - such as telephone poles or the underside of bridges -that snap a photograph of every license plate that enters their fields of view. Typically, each photo is time, date, and GPS-stamped, stored, and sent to a database, which provides an alert to a patrol officer whenever a match or "hit" appears.
"Automatic license plate readers make it possible for the police to track our location whenever we drive our cars and to store that information forever," said Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy & Technology Project. "The American people have a right to know whether our police departments are using these tools in a limited and responsible manner, or whether they are keeping records of our movements for months or years for no good reason."
ALPRs are spreading rapidly around the country, but the public has little information about how they are used to track motorists' movements, including how long data collected by ALPRs is stored, and whether local police departments pool this information in state, regional or national databases. If ALPRs are being used as a tool for mass routine location tracking and surveillance and to collect and store information not just on people suspected of crimes, but on every single motorist, the public should know that so that they can voice their concerns.
ALPRs have already proven controversial. Just last month the Drug Enforcement Administration withdrew its request to install ALPRs along certain portions of Interstate 15 in Utah after they were met with resistance by local lawmakers.
"Tracking and recording people's movements raises serious privacy concerns, because where we go can reveal a great deal about us, including visits to doctor's offices, political meetings, and friends." said Kade Crockford, Director of the Technology for Liberty Project of the ACLU of Massachusetts. "We need legal protections to limit the collection, retention and sharing of our travel information, and we need these rules right away."
The ACLU of Virginia sent requests to the Virginia State Police, the Police Departments for Fairfax County, Virginia Beach, Prince William County, Chesterfield County, Henrico County, Norfolk, Chesapeake, Arlington County, Richmond City, Harrisonburg, Lynchburg, Danville, Bristol, and Warrenton, and the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office.
In addition, the ACLU and the ACLU of Massachusetts filed federal Freedom of Information Act requests with the departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Transportation to learn how the federal government funds ALPR expansion nationwide and uses the technology itself.