The American Civil Liberties Union released a report Wednesday indicating that American law enforcement largely considers simply traveling in an automobile reason enough to track American citizens and log their movements.
Using automatic license plate readers mounted on patrol cars or stationary objects like bridges, American law enforcement agencies are building massive databases that contain the location information of millions of innocent Americans stretching back for months or even years.
According to the ACLU, the plate readers were initially supposed to be used to check against lists of cars related to suspects that law enforcement hoped to locate. But agencies have begun using the cameras to build databases of every passing car in a given location, effectively creating logs that could be used to track the movements of innocent Americans.
Officials in Maryland told the ACLU that troopers in that State could “maintain a normal patrol stance” while capturing up to 7,000 license plate images in a single eight-hour shift.
In some jurisdictions, that travel data is stored for only 30 days. In others, the information is retained indefinitely.
Used in conjunction with other disturbing surveillance technologies, it’s conceivable that government now has the ability to know where you are going and why, as well as whom you may be associating with when you reach your destination.
Note from the Editor: Under the Obama Administration, the NSA, the IRS, and the State and Justice departments are blatantly stepping on Americans’ privacy—and these are just the breaches we’re aware of. I’ve arranged for readers to get a free copy of The Ultimate Privacy Guide so you can be protected from any form of surveillance by anyone-government, corporate or criminal. Click here for your free copy.
Law enforcement officials say that there is no cause for concern, and that American motorists have no reasonable expectation of privacy on public roadways.
“These plate readers are not intended nor used to follow the movements of members of the public,” a police department in the State of New York said in a statement responding to the ACLU investigation.
But the ACLU notes: “License plate reader information can be very revealing. While one snapshot at one point might not seem sensitive, as blankets of plate readers cover our streets, and as the government stores data for longer and longer, the technology quickly morphs into a powerful tracking tool.”
The civil liberties advocacy organization says that the plate readers give government a powerful tool that could effectively be used to eliminate all forms of dissidence against government policies. They also provide a watchful eye that would be the pride of any nanny-state.
“What can location data reveal about people? Trips to places of worship, political protests, or gun ranges can be powerful indicators of people’s beliefs. Is it really the government’s business how often you go to the drug store or liquor store, what doctors you visit, and the identities of your friends?” said ACLU staff attorney Catherine Crump. “I’m sure all of us can remember something from our past that could embarrass us. If the government comes to suspect you of something in 2020, should it have access to databases stretching back years that could dig up facts about you that previously went unnoticed?”
Though police departments and public safety officials throughout the Nation contend that the plate readers provide a powerful investigative resource for law enforcement, the ACLU study, based on 26,000 pages of responses from 293 police departments and State agencies across the country, raises serious questions about how often the technology is really used to catch dangerous criminals.
For example, plate readers in Maryland collected license plate information on about 29 million vehicles between January and May 2012. Only 60,000 — or one in 500 — license plates captured by the cameras were marked as suspicious. But that doesn’t mean that police in Maryland were able to clear up thousands of warrants, catch thousands of rapists or nab child molesters, terrorists and various other menaces to society with the help of the plate readers. In fact, 97 percent of those vehicles marked suspicious were fingered because of expired registrations of failures to comply with State emissions regulations.
While police probably would rather the public just believe that the license plate readers exist to nab murderers, terrorists and kidnappers rather than question the effectiveness of the surveillance based on facts, there are other, more sinister, reasons for law enforcement officials to want to keep the plate readers around.
“The government doesn’t have a great track record of using this kind of information responsibly,” said Crump. “As our report details, the data can be abused for official purposes, like spying on protesters merely because they are exercising their constitutionally protected right to petition the government, or unofficial ones, like tracking an ex-spouse.”
Next time you’re talking on your mobile phone cruising down the freeway, smile and say hello to Big Brother. He can hear you, he can see you… better let him know you are an obedient subject.
Read ACLU’s full report “You Are Being Tracked” here.