PhotoThe ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are suing the Los Angeles police and sheriff's departments, demanding to know how those agencies are using the data gleaned from Automatic License Plate Readers, or ALPRs.

A Jan. 28 press release co-authored by EFF staffer Jennifer Lynch and ACLU attorney Peter Bibring noted that:

Both EFF and the ACLU have argued that ALPRs — high-speed cameras mounted on poles and patrol cars that record every passing vehicle’s license plate, along with time, date and location—raise serious privacy concerns because the location data they collect reveals a great deal of personal information. ….

We have also argued, though, that the only way to have an informed public debate about appropriate limits on ALPRs is through greater transparency about how the technology is actually being used. This is why we’ve asked for a week’s worth of data collected by all of LAPD and LASD’s ALPR cameras, in addition to policies and procedures on how the agencies say they’re using the technology. It isn’t possible to know what police are really doing until we have at least a representative slice of the data they collect ….

police use of ALPRs has exploded in recent years. A September 2009 survey reported that 70 of 305 randomly-selected police departments nationwide (23 percent) used ALPRs. A 2011 survey of more than 70 police departments showed that 79 percent used ALPR technology and 85 percent expected to acquire or increase use in the next five years. On average, these agencies expected that 25 percent of police vehicles would be equipped with license plate readers by 2016.

Why worry?

Of course, proponents of ALPRs and their use by police cite all the ways these scanners prove useful while hunting criminals. So why should innocent, non-criminal types worry about it? The EFF and ACLU have an answer:

A network of readers enables police to collect extensive location data on an individual, without his knowledge and without any level of suspicion. ALPRs can be used to scan and record vehicles at a lawful protest or house of worship; track all movement in and out of an area; specifically target certain neighborhoods or organizations; or place political activists on hot lists so that their movements trigger alerts. In U.S. v. Jones, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted the sensitive nature of location data and the fact that it can yield “a wealth of detail about [a person’s] familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations.” Taken in the aggregate, ALPR data creates a revealing history of a person’s movements, associations, and habits.

ALPR can already be used for this purpose. In August 2012, the Minneapolis Star Tribune published a map displaying the 41 locations where license plate readers had recorded Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak’s car in the preceding year. And in Boston, investigative reporters with MuckRock and Boston Globe found that the Boston Police were tracking cars in certain neighborhoods more than others. This data is ripe for abuse; in 1998, a Washington, D.C. police officer “pleaded guilty to extortion after looking up the plates of vehicles near a gay bar and blackmailing the vehicle owners.”

Of course, ALPRs are hardly the only new technology to raise qualms in privacy advocates. On Feb. 3, the tech blog Ars Technica discussed how the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is toying with the idea of one day introducing new regulations mandating “vehicle to vehicle” (or V2V) technology in all “light vehicles” sold.

Cars equipped with V2V technology uses GPS, wifi and other “connective” technologies would be able to communicate with each other, in what Ars Technica described as “a digital version of the swimming pool game Marco Polo, warning drivers if another vehicle’s broadcasts show a risk of a collision.”

The good thing about V2V tech is that it could reduce traffic accidents and fatalities by up to 80 percent. The downside, of course, is the same as with ALPRs covering more and more American roadways how can privacy rights be respected by technology whose sole purpose is to eradicate privacy?

Thus far, the NHTSA is not considering V2V mandates for “heavy vehicles” such as buses or 18-wheelers because, as Ars Technica said, “Additional regulations on vehicle safety for commercial trucking that require the installation of additional hardware—and potentially greater government monitoring of trucking operations—are bound to face intense resistance from the trucking industry and its lobbyists if and when they are presented.”

The possibility of privacy advocates offering equally intense resistance for V2V “light vehicle” regulations is not to be discounted, either.

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