By Russell Matson
How much power should police have to look up your driving habits and the places you frequent? That’s the question at issue as the state considers limitations on new technology already being widely deployed by police.
The dangers of law enforcement omnipotence and the privacy concerns of a surveillance state have been well documented in light of an increasing and disturbing trend nationwide: license plate readers. Boston-area police have joined the trend, incorporating a number of license plate readers throughout the area enabling police to track motorists, with or without any suspicion of criminal activity.
The tracking powers are almost universal. The way it works is, anywhere your vehicle goes, if it happens to cross one of these readers, it will be photographed and stored into an information system that includes the plate, the location and the time. These readers can be anywhere: the supermarket, your church, your kid’s tennis classes, or community meetings.
The purported primary purpose of these devices is to quickly identify stolen vehicles, or drivers wanted by law enforcement for offenses such as driving on a suspended license, or open warrants for failure to appear in court. Still, all the data, the “misses” as well as the “hits” are constantly being logged.
Once in the system, officials, equipped only with a license plate number, can enter that number into a database that retroactively creates a map of where you’ve been, when you’ve been there, and who else has been there with you.
What’s worse, the emergence of plate reading technology means that law enforcement agencies won’t be the only ones with access to your whereabouts. Private corporations, who have been notorious for using private information on consumers to narrowly tailor their marketing, will line up in droves to get their hands on reader technology. Without legislation in place to prevent this information from getting into the wrong hands, the privacy of Massachusetts citizens and Americans nationwide will continue to dwindle.
Fortunately, such legislation may be on the horizon. The Mass legislature is hearing The License Plate Privacy Act. The bill would set strict parameters around which law enforcement may use any information obtained from license plate readers. Essentially, it would require that any information obtained for reasons other than to track violations should be discarded. A court order would be required for officials to hold onto any such license plate information for more than a few day period.
The bill has already garnered some prominent supporters. The ACLU of Massachusetts has endorsed the bill, with Technology for Liberty Project director Kade Crockford calling the measures “checks and balances” against abusive use of technology. Civil libertarians across the state have praised the bill as not only limiting potentially insidious use, but also of setting precisely the type of guidelines that can make plate readers actually useful to law enforcement, by promoting public safety and lawful upkeep of vehicles.
The implications of the bill would reach even further. As it stands, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security has indicated that a statewide database is the end destination of data obtained from license plate readers. Other states have similar databases, and that the aggregated data funnels through to central information on a national level. That means your movements, in and out of the state, are part of an integrated information tracking system that passes in front of many sets of eyes. Some ALPR devices are even provided to local police departments via grants from the Department of Homeland Security on the condition that they share all their data with national law enforcement.
The bill, if passed, looks to essentially dump any information that is not immediately used to spot infractions. Does that mean snapshots of license plates obtained through routine tracking wouldn’t make their way into nationwide information aggregates? That’s a question for another day. For now, advocates of privacy can agree on one thing: passing the License Plate Privacy Act would be a definite step forward.
Russell Matson is a criminal defense attorney in Massachusetts. His website is http://www.madrunkdrivingdefense.com