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License Plate Scanners, Black Boxes Track Location of Millions of Motorists

Documents obtained by the ACLU reveal location records are being stored by law enforcement agencies across the nation without oversight.

Documents obtained by the ACLU reveal location records are being stored by law enforcement agencies across the nation without oversight.

The surveillance state just gave you another reason to ride a bike.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) revealed a trove of documents last week showing how digital license plate readers are tracking our movements on a day-to-day basis. The report, titled “You Are Being Tracked,” analyzes more than 26,000 pages of documents obtained from police departments across the country that show how this new location tracking technology is being used to monitor the movements of millions of motorists every single day.

The readers photograph passing vehicles from overpasses and patrol cars where they are mounted and record the time, location and license plate number of any vehicle that passes. That information is then fed back to massive databases kept by local law enforcement agencies, which can then work in conjunction with Homeland Security fusion centers or databases created by third-party private corporations to interpret and store the metadata for years, or in some cases, indefinitely, with little to no oversight in many cases.

Law enforcement agencies use the data to cross-check against lists of license plates from stolen cars or those linked with outstanding arrest warrants. In Maryland, for instance, only 47 out of more than 1 million license plates scanned were linked with serious crimes.

According to ACLU advocacy and policy strategist Allie Bohn, states like Vermont automatically share all stored location records with the state’s fusion center, while other states pool the information in central databases kept by law enforcement agencies. In Boston, the information is shared with a private database used by more than 4,500 law enforcement agencies nationwide. According to Bohn, anyone with login access could retrieve these stored location records. Once the data is shared with other regional governmental jurisdictions, the agency can lose control of the data entirely.

Although many local police departments have internal reporting requirements and others are audited by states, regulations on the collection and storage of location metadata still prove too lax to ensure the privacy of millions of innocent motorists.

“Part of the reason that there hasn’t been as many laws and that there hasn’t been as much accountability is that this issue is in the shadows; it’s been below the radar,” Bohn said.

The ACLU is pushing to require police departments across the country to obtain reasonable suspicion of a crime before capturing license plate data and to require the deletion of all stored location records within days or weeks, not years or indefinite periods of time. Some agencies across the nation, such as those in Virginia and Ohio, are already doing this.

The report specifically cites Grapevine, Texas, a city in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, as having reportedly scanned 14,547 license plates per day in 2012, storing records for more than 2 million plates in its database indefinitely.

According to Grapevine Police Department administration Sgt. Robert Eberling, the city’s database receives information from the state’s crime index computer and tracks and stores the license plate records from up to 10 cameras at or around the Grapevine Mills Mall area. According to Eberling, the data is used in conjunction with only that crime index computer and not shared with fusion centers or third-party corporations. He told Truthout that only a law enforcement officer with the city of Grapevine can access the system.

“Right now we’re currently working on our policy on that system. As it stands right now, we’re probably going to put in place a one-year deadline as far as retaining that information, so after one year that information will be purged from the system,” Eberling told Truthout.

Currently, there’s no legislation in place regulating the collection and storage of license plate location records maintained in Grapevine’s massive database, but Eberling expects legislation will follow soon.

“Government tracking is not just happening at the [National Security Agency (NSA)] level; it’s happening at your state and local level. And there’s something that our state legislatures can do about that,” Bohn told Truthout. “[Legislators] can’t regulate the NSA, but they certainly can regulate what their state and local law enforcement agencies are doing with license plate readers, and for that matter what their state and local law enforcement agencies are doing with cellphone location tracking, and I hope that they will.”

But it’s not just license plate readers that can store data about your car’s location throughout the day. Consumers can now buy their own surveillance as new cars are increasingly being equipped with event data recorders commonly referred to as “black boxes” which can track your speed, location and whether or not you are wearing a seat belt. According to The New York Times, more than 96 percent of all new cars sold within the U.S. come equipped with the boxes, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is pushing to have them installed on all new vehicles by September 2014.

There are no clear regulations in place on black boxes, just like license plate readers, governing how information can be stored and used by law enforcement officials in crash incidents or criminal investigations. Only 14 states have laws that grant officers access to black box information with a court order, according to the Times. In many other cases, no court order is required.

“It’s another area where we need privacy safeguards to ensure that we can take advantage of this technology without sort of subjecting people to tracking without their knowledge or consent,” Bohn said. “At a minimum, customers should know. They should receive clear notices black boxes are installed, and they should have the opportunity to disable those black boxes.”

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