ACLU Battles Connecticut Law Enforcement Agencies Over Retention Of Licence Plate Reader Data

from the grab-it-all-and-hold-it-tight dept

Automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) are pretty much standard operating equipment for law enforcement agencies across the nation. Even if the ill-timed attempt to create a national license plate database was recently killed by DHS/ICE officials, this removal has done nothing to deter the collection efforts of multiple ALPR manufacturers to harvest tons of plate/location data and provide warrantless access to law enforcement.

Standard operating procedure also means rolling these plate readers out without asking for public comment or providing any meaningful privacy protections. Most ALPRs will hold onto ALL data for five years, unless forced to trim that down by legislators responding belatedly to public outcry. Some will hold onto the data for shorter periods of time, but nearly every ALPR manufacturer makes little to no effort to discard non-hit data.

The ACLU is currently fighting Connecticut legislators and police departments over proposed data policies relating to the states ALPRs.

The length of time law enforcement agencies could retain license plate information was the center of arguments Tuesday before the legislative Public Safety and Security Committee.

Local police chiefs want to hang on to the information for five years or more, because they say it's an important crime-fighting tool.

But opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, called the collection -- known as automated license plate recognition -- a threat to constitutional freedoms and asked the committee to require a much shorter retention period of days instead of years.
The police want five years, a ridiculous amount of time, especially considering they want to keep it all for that long -- even non-hit data. As David McGuire of the ACLU points out, this extended retention period of non-hit data lends itself to abuse.
"The trouble arises when license plate scan data is collected, pooled and archived for months or years, storing a detailed and vivid picture of the movements of drivers who are not even suspected of doing anything wrong.

Kept for years in databases, plate data can create a method for "retroactive surveillance of innocent people without a warrant, without probable cause and without any form of judicial oversight," he said.
Why would a law enforcement agency need 5 years of non-hit data? Connecticut police chiefs call the ALPRs an "important law enforcement tool" but what does plate data unrelated to investigations have to do with "law enforcement?" The ACLU suggests a retention period of two weeks for data not related to open investigations, but law enforcement officials want it all -- for a half-decade.

Without a doubt, ALPRs are a useful tool for law enforcement agencies, but one has to wonder why they're fighting so hard to keep the unrelated data. It serves almost no purpose and only encourages fishing expeditions and other abuses. No law enforcement rep interviewed for these stories offered a single reason why the ACLU's suggestion wouldn't work.

The only conceivable reason would be the investigation of cold cases or other incidents that happened years ago where location data might be useful. If that's the rationale, the rule should still hold. The non-hit data could be retained past the two-week point but should only be accessible with a warrant -- something narrowly crafted to search for only relevant plate numbers.

As the ACLU has discovered, even a small state like Connecticut has already amassed millions of license plate/location records. Six million records have been collected by ten towns, with Newington, CT alone compiling over 600,000 scans despite only having a population of 30,000. And for what? Newington police chief Richard Mulhall points to a little under 900 arrests (with 839 of those being "motor-vehicle related" -- only 28 were deemed "criminal arrests") as justification of the massive amount of scanning.

There's an obsession with collecting data -- a majority of it useless and irrelevant -- pervading every law enforcement, investigative and intelligence agency in the nation. Groups like the ACLU are pushing back using FOIA requests and legislation, but it's an uphill battle against this ingrained mentality. Technology continues to outpace the law and as long as this remains a fact, the privacy of millions of Americans remains threatened.

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Filed Under: connecticut, data, license plate readers
Companies: aclu


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  1. icon
    Ninja (profile), 12 Mar 2014 @ 3:51am

    I wonder, if we go to the extreme and make it law to store anything and everything data related indefinitely if the system won't collapse under its own weight (both financially and due to the abuses).

    Anyway, considering all the VERY recent historical examples of why this is a bad idea I'd say Americans need to review what's being taught in their schools regarding History. It seems the generation currently in power fails at it.

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