Editorial | License plate scanning presents danger of illegal profiling
Published: Monday, October 1, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 1, 2012 07:10
On Sept. 25, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts, in conjunction with 39 other ACLU chapters across the country, filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security over the data-mining devices mounted on many police vehicles known as Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs).
Police departments in both Somerville and Medford have made use of ALPR technology.
One Medford police cruiser has two scanners affixed to its trunk, and in Somerville, two police cars use the plate readers.
The device takes an infrared photo of a license plate, converts it into a text file, and cross-checks the text file to a police hotlist that contains the license plate numbers of — to name a few — stolen or wanted vehicles, sex offenders, outstanding arrest warrants and suspended registration information.
Regardless of whether or not the device registers a hit with the hotlist, information about the photographed car including its license plate number, its photo and the date, area and time of the scan are stored in a databank for 90 days.
That is, unless an official with expressed access shows interest in a specific set of data for intelligence gathering purposes.
In that case, the information can be kept indefinitely.
Police can take random scans or focus their scanning on a geographic area deemed of interest by higher-ups in the department.
According to records released by the Boston Police Department to the ACLU, an average of 3,630 license plates are read daily.
One company that produces these scanners, ELSAG North America, states that one office read over 1,000,000 license plate numbers over the course of 16 months, most likely because the ALPR in question can take 1,800 license plate reads every minute.
Additionally, ELSAG states that these devices can be used from everything from catching speeding violators to identifying students or employees with outstanding fines on a college campus.
The use of ALPRs has been contested before. In Maine and New Hampshire, there is already legislation restricting their use.
ALPRs have been abused as well: According to CBC News, after Canadian reporter Kerry Diotte wrote an article critical of their use, he was placed on such a police hotlist without the due process required by law for police to do so.
The ACLU submitted its lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Boston because of the group’s particular interest in the fact that the Boston Police Department authorizes the use of ALPRs in specific geographic areas deemed important for investigative purposes.
The ACLU’s lawsuit also seeks to publicize currently confidential police information about the use of the scanners, including the identities of the manufacturers of the systems, exactly how many units are being used, how many hits are stored in the system, and how police officers are trained to utilize ALPRs.
It is time to make privacy a more democratic process.
Most police departments, including local ones, have few or no guidelines for which automobiles should be photographed, and there are not enough checks in place to prevent illegal profiling with this device.
Although these scanners can sometimes be useful to police departments, with the loose to almost nonexistent rules qualifying their use, a case like Diotte’s could happen again.
Because these scanners would be mostly funded by federal grants, it is our right as taxpayers to know what the data is being used for and our duty to prevent its misuse.