ACLU Welcomes Start of Public Discussion of Privacy Implications of License Plate Tracking By Law EnforcementNovember 21, 2011
The ACLU of the Nation's Capital today urged executive and legislative branches of government in the District to take note of the report in the Washington Post November 20 on the "vast system that tracks the comings and goings of anyone driving around the District."
"The ACLU has been gathering information on this for a year and will be reporting to the D.C. Council at oversight hearings in a few weeks how the MPD has stonewalled disclosure of what they are doing and how. It's time for the Mayor and Council to bring this out of the shadows," said ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Fritz Mulhauser.
The ACLU requested details of the license plate tracking system, and a copy of the data (with all personally identifiable information removed), in February. The Police Department refused to provide the database (of license tags and when and where spotted) saying it would invade owners' privacy. The ACLU appealed but the Mayor's office upheld the police, finding too little public interest in the data that would show how the system works. The police provided its published general order covering the license plate reader program. It sets no limits, allowing access to the database for any "official law enforcement purpose" and contains no discussion of law or privacy concerns with investigative uses of the years of data archives beyond the obvious benefits of locating stolen cars or finding wanted persons.
"The ACLU believes it’s important for the public to see just what this new form of surveillance by police can do; only getting access to the data will show that," said ACLU attorney Mulhauser. "Several government agencies in the District and elsewhere, including for example the Seattle Police Department, have made this information available; what is MPD hiding?"
The Washington Post noted the effort to spy on license tags and build databases of the observations has grown "with virtually no public debate," and quoted law professor Orin Kerr's view that use of massive data on citizens' travels needs safeguards. ACLU attorney Mulhauser said, "We agree with Professor Kerr that questions about the system need scrutiny and there is a need for a conversation about whether and how this technology is used. We'll be preparing questions we think the Council Committee on the Judiciary should ask the MPD before the coming oversight hearing so that the conversation is direct and pointed and informed."
To the Post, ACLU Senior Policy Analyst Jay Stanley observed that years and years of data being accumulated by D.C. and other governments represent "a large database of innocent people's comings and goings" and "the government has no business collecting that kind of information on people without a warrant."
ACLU attorney Mulhauser said "Legal questions like Kerr's and Stanley's need to be heard. Experts at George Mason who reviewed license tag camera systems in police departments nationwide found that only a quarter researched the legal implications of the technology before adopting it; that may help explain why our D.C. police department is so reluctant that what they are doing see the light of day. And as always with new techniques, the community is worried about mission creep: what will government do next with these data? The Washington Post says tax collectors in Virginia are tracking deadbeats; what's next--finding cars of people with unpaid child support, or of those with overdue library books? The standard police answer, that if you're not doing anything wrong you don’t have anything to worry about, just isn't enough in this day of 21st Century government databases storing your car's every movement."
Currently, Maine and New Hampshire are the only states with laws restricting or limiting license tag tracking and data usage. The ACLU of the Nation's Capital will continue to actively investigate the technology used in the District of Columbia and will be working to protect your privacy. If you have specific information on how police are using this new technology, please let us know.