A drive to the store, to the doctor’s office or to work is routine and Seattle police have likely photographed your license plate sometime during a trip like that. They’re looking for stolen vehicles and cars linked to crimes.
The American Civil Liberties Union has just released a report titled: “You Are Being Tracked.” It details how local police departments are amassing millions of digital records on the location and movement of Americans using automated license plate readers (ALPR). The cameras are typically mounted on patrol cars, but can also be positioned on bridges and buildings.
The ACLU wants state legislatures to impose limits on how long police can store data gathered by license plate readers (ALPR), particularly if the plate comes up clean.
“In most cases, the devices can figure out whether or not there’s a hit, almost instantaneously,” said Jamela Debelak, technology and liberties director at the ACLU of Washington. “We think it would be a much better practice that if there is no hit, there is no reason to retain that data.”
The ACLU of Washington asked for records about the use of ALPR from police in Seattle in 2011.
“Initially, they did not have a policy about retention and they were keeping records for a very long time,” said Debelak. “When we did our public records request, a couple of years ago, we were able to get about three years worth of data in one dump.”
Seattle police did not comment on how long the department keeps data collected by the cameras. Seattle police have internal policies for the use of the license plate readers, but the technology is specifically excluded from Seattle’s new law on the use of surveillance equipment. Debelak thinks Seattle police now keep the data for 60-to-90 days, but the Seattle Police Manual, published online, does not reveal any such policy.
The ACLU of Washington confirmed that at least 22 police and sheriff’s agencies in Washington own automated license plate reader systems.