LAS VEGAS - The American Civil Liberties Union wants to know how police around the country are using automatic license plate readers to track people's movements.
The ACLU today sent requests for information to police departments in 38 states and filed federal Freedom of Information Act requests with the departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Transportation to try to find out how much the governments use the technology and how much it is paying to expand the program.
Mounted on patrol cars, telephone poles and under bridges, the automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) can snap a photograph of every license plate that passes by. They also record the time, date and location based on GPS, and send an alert to officers when a license plate is recorded that matches a stolen vehicle, according to the ACLU.
It's unclear how long the data is retained, whether different departments are pooling the information in state, regional and national databases and what purposes it is used for, Kade Crockford, director of technology for the Liberty Project at the ACLU of Massachusetts, told CNET at Defcon this weekend.
Tracking and recording data on peoples' movements so broadly raises serious privacy concerns because it means police will be able to know who goes where, when and for how long, Crockford said. The system would also allow police to do retroactive surveillance, by searching in the data for a specific car's whereabouts at any point in time, she added.
Crockford is concerned about the broad scope of the surveillance, which can track every motorist, not just those who are suspected of crimes. "The system is ripe for abuse," for mass routine location tracking, as well as for unwarranted use against select individuals, she said.
"They will have all this data on people who have not been accused of any wrongdoing" Crockford said. "Do we want a world in which the police know where we were five years ago?"
Meanwhile, private companies like tow truck operators are also using the systems and selling the data to police and data mining firms, she said.
The government needs to set standards for collecting, retaining and sharing the data and impose strict requirements to provide privacy protections for people now before the systems become too widespread, Crockford said.
Spokespeople at the DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A DOJ spokeswoman said the agency does not comment on pending FOIA requests. A DOT spokeswoman said she had passed the request to the appropriate officials.
The controversial systems are already taking some heat. After lawmakers in Utah expressed privacy concerns about them, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency withdrew its request to have automated license plate readers installed on parts of Interstate 15 in that state, but has not said it is abandoning the program, the Deseret News of Salt Lake City reported last month.
The police might take a cue from Google, which said it would remove license plates from its Google Map Street View images after people complained.