BENNINGTON -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont is among the dozens of affiliates voicing concern over the use of Automated License Plate Recognition systems by law enforcement and seeking more information from local and state governments.
Allen Gilbert, executive director of ACLU-VT, said the Vermont affiliate has received some information from the state of Vermont on the use of ALPRs through freedom of information requests. What has been learned so far is causing concern, he said.
"We have actually been surprised by what we’re slowly finding out," he said. "What we didn’t know was how there was a plan for a centralized state database, and that indeed, that plan had already been implemented."
ALPRs allow license plates to be read by cameras mounted on police cruisers. The plate information is then relayed through a database and an officer is alerted if a vehicle is not registered, or if the registered owner has outstanding warrants, a suspended license or other issues that would draw the interest of law enforcement.
Gilbert said ACLU affiliates around the country are now trying to determine what information is being collected and stored by law enforcement.
"Our concerns are: Who has access to the data, how is the data being used and how long is the data available?" Gilbert said. "After we get those answers it will be much easier to see if civil liberties are being violated."
"The other really big thing that we didn’t know was that the state had already decided how long the data would be retained. We sort of thought they would say that the data was going to be retained for 10 days or 30 days at the most," he said. "This is much more toward building a surveillance network around the state than we had realized."
ACLU affiliates from 34 states have made similar records requests.
The information gleaned from the responses will be shared, Gilbert said.
"We wanted to find out on a national level how far, how pervasive, the growth of a system using ALPRs was. Most of us are still waiting for some of the requests to be responded to, despite the fact that it’s been several weeks," he said. "My guess is that based on what we’re finding out, the general conclusion is going to be that, largely because of money that’s flowed from the fed government, and largely from Homeland Security grants, I think we’re going to find that ALPR systems have become widespread."
Civil liberties could be at risk because information is being stored for so long.
"The civil rights aspect fits in because the data is going to be retained for a period much longer than you would otherwise obtain information when you suspect a crime has been committed," Gilbert said. "There’s no reason that a record of someone’s license plate be retained if a person is not being investigated for a crime."
The ALPRs essentially allow police to track vehicles by recording where and when they are captured by the cameras, Gilbert said. "What you’re really doing is building a surveillance society," he said. "That’s really pretty un-American. That’s not how we think of freedom in this county."
Courts have ruled that surveillance cameras are legal because they do nothing more than what an officer could observe. But, equating an ALPR to a law enforcement officer writing down a license plate is "pretty much a stretch," Gilbert said.
"I’m sure you will be seeing lawsuits about this eventually. Whether they’ll be successful or not is a very good question," he said.