"This is a way to track all Americans all the time, regardless of whether they're accused of any wrongdoing" — ACLU.
Police across the USA are using automatic cameras to read and snap digital photos of millions of car license plates to help solve crimes, but in the process stores information on millions of innocent people, the American Civil Liberties Union says in a report out Wednesday.
The digital dragnet mostly collects data that are unrelated to any suspected lawbreaking or known activity of interest to law enforcement. It is a fast-growing trend ripe for misuse and abuse, the ACLU says.
License plate scanners 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. The ACLU says there is little supervision or control over the data that were recorded, usually without motorists realizing their locations have been recorded.
"This is a way to track all Americans all the time, regardless of whether they're accused of any wrongdoing," said Crump, calling the readers "the most widespread location tracking technology you've probably never heard of."
The ACLU report is based on information compiled from Freedom of Information requests a year ago in 38 states and the District of Columbia.
One striking finding is the lack of standardized procedures for dealing with license plate information.
In Minnesota, pop. 5.3 million, the State Patrol purges scanned data after 48 hours and has fewer than 20,000 license-plate readings on file, the ACLU found.
Milpitas, Calif., pop. 68,000, has 4.7 million license-plate scans on file and no policy for erasing them. Police Sgt. Frank Morales says Milpitas, "is a small community, but we attract very many visitors. We have a large mall here, the Great Mall," and that could account for the outsize number of license plate records. "A person who gets his (stolen) car back probably would see (scanners) as a success," he says.
The plate scanners generally are mounted on the rear fender, trunk or roof of police cars and parking enforcement vehicles. Some also are mounted on road signs, toll gates or bridges. They're rarely part of the larger debate on government surveillance, but a 2012 survey by the not-for-profit Police Executive Research Forum found that 71% of police agencies now use them.
Thursday's ACLU findings come just over a month after Americans first learned of a massive National Security Agency electronic surveillance program that, since 2007, has tracked millions of phone records and e-mails. The program was secret until early last month, when disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. He has left the U.S. and faces espionage charges.
And unlike the mountain of mostly anonymous calling data gathered by the NSA, the plate data include a specific location and can be, via a separate police inquiry, correlated to personal data in the state motor vehicle registration records.
Police say the devices are effective at finding stolen vehicles and cutting auto theft rates.
Police also say they've used readers to solve cold cases, including homicides.
The ACLU report says the plate scanning casts a wide net for little gain — that only "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%) were potentially associated with a stolen car or a person wanted for a crime." In one Sacramento shopping mall, private security officers snapped pictures of about 3 million plates in 27 months, identifying 51 stolen vehicles — but that's a success rate of just 0.0017%.
"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.' For example, police in Jersey City, N.J., recorded 2.1 million plate reads last year. As of August 2012, Grapevine, Texas, had 2 million plate reads stored and Milpitas, Calif., had 4.7 million," the report says.
Police Sgt. Frank Morales said Milpitas, pop. 68,000, "is a small community, but we attract very many visitors. We have a large mall here, the Great Mall," and that could account for the outsize number of license plate records. It's a discount mall situated between two interstate highways and two freeways.
Report: License plate date on millions of innocent motorists kept indefinitely
Civil liberties activists say the data could be used to track innocent drivers' whereabouts and private lives, including where they worship. Even the International Association of Chiefs of Police has said there's a potential for invasion of privacy, as plate readers can snap pictures of a car at a political gathering, psychologist's office, abortion clinic or church and have recommended tight control over use of the data.
In perhaps the most high-profile case, police in New York City used the readers to record license plates of congregants as they arrived to pray at a mosque in Queens.
Part of their appeal for police is that they are efficient and relatively cheap. They can scan plates about eight times more quickly than a cop with a laptop driving down the road, a recent study found.
As the device costs drop, said Crump, "Even small-town police departments have it within their budget to buy one." The cost of storing data has also dropped she said, so police can store images "not just for days but for weeks or months or even years." Eventually, she said, agencies could share the data to build a detailed travel profile "of all Americans simply because they chose to drive a car."
Over the past few years, federal anti-terrorism funding also has helped more police agencies get them. Police in New Castle County, Del., used a $200,000 federal grant to purchase 10 cameras that they've mounted on vehicles, said police spokesman Cpl. John Weglarz. "For us it's an effective tool. It's one of those things that we've obviously researched and we feel (that) as long as our officers are using it within proper guidelines and within the policy, it acts as an effective tool."
He said his agency keeps the license data for one year and said any officer misusing the data "would be subjected to a disciplinary action."
He said drivers shouldn't be concerned about privacy breaches. "We use (the data) within the proper channels and … it gets stored for a year and that's it," he said.
That's the policy there, but the ACLU says that in 45 states there are no laws on how long police can keep the records.
"More and more cameras, longer retention periods, and widespread sharing allow law enforcement agents to assemble the individual puzzle pieces of where we have been over time into a single, high-resolution image of our lives," the report says.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that police need a court order to attach a GPS tracker to a suspect's car, but ACLU says the USA's growing network of license readers could someday allow police to do the same thing without a warrant as they tie together individual snapshots of innocent drivers' cars.
Police say that drivers have no expectation of privacy on a public streets.
Privacy activists see it less clear-cut.
"There's a difference between walking down a public sidewalk and being observed, vs. walking down the next sidewalk and being observed, and walking down the next sidewalk and being observed, and walking down another sidewalk and being observed, and walking down the sidewalk next week and being observed," says Amie Stepanovich, lawyer at the Electronic Privacy Information Center and director of the group's domestic surveillance project.
"The prevalent use of automatic plate readers is a threat to privacy. They can be used to track the location of individuals. And there are no laws governing the retention of the information," she says. "This is an issue we've been following for quite some time. We've had quite a few inquiries," she says.
Mobile readers don't discriminate between public and private settings. In one case, a San Leandro, Calif., man got police to hand over all the photos of his Toyota Tercel for the past two years and found that they were photographing him almost weekly, according to The Wall Street Journal. One snapshot captured him and his two daughters getting out of a car in their driveway.
In another case, the Minneapolis Star Tribune found last August that Mayor R.T. Rybak's city-owned cars were photographed 41 times by license readers over the course of a year.
Last summer, the ACLU filed nearly 600 Freedom of Information Act requests in 38 states and Washington, asking federal, state and local agencies how they use the readers. The 26,000 pages of documents produced by the agencies that responded – about half – include training materials, internal memos and policy statements.
The civil liberty organization has more than a dozen recommendations for government use of license plate scanner systems and the data collected, including:
•Police must have reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred before examining the data.
•Unless there are legitimate reasons to retain records, they should be deleted within days or weeks at most.
•People should be able to find out if their cars' location history is in a law enforcement database.