by James R. Healey, Greg Toppo and Fred Meier
An Alexandria, Va., police car has a license plate scanner mounted on the trunk. Police across the USA have used the devices to amass hundreds of millions of digital records on the location of every car and truck they pass, the ACLU says.
(Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)
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.