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USA: Automatic plate readers used by police is a threat to privacy of common people

American Civil Liberties Union
American Civil Liberties Union

USA: According to a report from American Civil Liberties Union, police across the USA are using automatic cameras to read and snap digital photos of millions of car license plates in order to solve crimes but in the same process they are storing information of millions of innocent people.

Catherine, Lead Author, ACLU, said: “License plate scanners are in effect, government location tracking systems which records the movements of many millions of innocent Americans in huge databases.”

Crump added: “This is a way to track all Americans all the time, regardless of whether they’re accused of any wrongdoing, the most widespread location tracking technology you’ve probably never heard of.”

One striking finding is the lack of standardized procedures for dealing with license plate information.

The license-plate readers, which police typically mount along major roadways or on the backs of cruisers, can identify vehicles almost instantly and compare them against “hot lists” of cars that have been stolen or involved in crimes.

But the systems collect records on every license plate they encounter — whether or not they are on hot lists — meaning time and location data are gathered in databases that can be searched by police. Some departments purge information after a few weeks, some after a few months and some never, said the report, “You are Being Tracked: How License Plate Readers Are Being Used to Record Americans’ Movements,” which warns that such data could be abused by authorities, and chill freedom of speech and association.

The ACLU report says, 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%.

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.

According to the report, 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.

Amie Stepanovich, lawyer at the Electronic Privacy Information Center and Director of the group’s domestic surveillance project, said: “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.”

Stepanovich added: “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. This is an issue we’ve been following for quite some time. We’ve had quite a few inquiries.”

As per the source, 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.

The civil liberty organization has some recommendations for government use of license plate scanner systems and the data collected which include:

• 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.





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