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ACLU Questions Privacy of License Plate Scanners 246

coastal984 writes with news that the American Civil Liberties Union is launching a nation-wide effort to find out how police departments are using and retaining information gathered from license plate scanners. They've sent FOIA requests to departments in 38 states, as well as the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Transportation. "It’s not an exaggeration to say that in ten years there will be [automatic license plate readers] just about everywhere, making detailed records of every driver’s every movement, and storing it for who knows how long. In some cases, we know that the worst-case scenario—vast databases with records of movements of massive numbers of people—is already happening. To avoid this fate we need to convince the nation and our lawmakers to take action on this serious threat to our liberty. And to make a convincing case, we need to know a lot more about the problem as it stands. Last year, most people didn’t know why we should call our mobiles 'trackers' instead of phones; there was very little public information on how police departments were using our phones to track our location. The ACLU stepped in and spearheaded a massive public records project, bringing together affiliates from every part of the country, obtaining documents that showed how police nationwide were getting access to our intimate information without judicial oversight."
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ACLU Questions Privacy of License Plate Scanners

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  • by CanHasDIY ( 1672858 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @10:28AM (#40828487) Homepage Journal

    To avoid this fate we need to convince the nation and our lawmakers to take action on this serious threat to our liberty.

    ... you're shitting me, right? Asking politicians to not make laws which restrict the freedoms of their people is like asking a mako shark to please not take a chunk out of my ass - neither is capable of understanding either your request, or reason in general.

  • Where is the line? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MyLongNickName ( 822545 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @10:33AM (#40828561) Journal

    Anyone can sit down and write down liscense plate numbers. Citizens have done this on their own when they have suspected a house on their block of drug trafficking. Very few would consider this to be an invasion of privacy.

    Police officers routinely check license plates against a registry of stolen cars. Few would consider this to be an invasion of privacy.

    If police placed a device on my car that told them where I was 24/7, I'd consider that an invasion of privacy.

    Having traffic plate scanners all over the place seems like an extension of case #2 where the police are checking license plates on their own... but simply using technology to speed up the process. Where is the line? Is it the automation and efficiency? Would we be upset if automated systems were in place to catch stolen cars or those with outstanding warrants? Or is it storing of the data so that someone else can use the data later for a non-law enforcement type purpose? Would we have a problem with the system if it was incapable of storing the data?

  • by CanHasDIY ( 1672858 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @10:34AM (#40828579) Homepage Journal
    I know you're trying to be facetious, but if you think about it, private registrations would have one major advantage over government-controlled ones, at least in terms of freedom: Being as the different private registrars would be in direct competition with one another, they would have precisely zero incentive to share information between databases.

    No data sharing = no nationwide tracking database.
  • by The Raven ( 30575 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @10:38AM (#40828615) Homepage

    I would be fine with the trackers if they stored only the most recent location a particular car was detected, and retrieving that location required either the registered owner to report it stolen, or a warrant.

    As long as locations can be stored forever, and retrieved at a whim, abuse will be significant.

  • Re:Swap vehicles (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @10:38AM (#40828625)

    A. The point is that we shouldn't have to jump through hoops to avoid being tracked. Instead, the police et al should have to jump through hoops to track anyone.
    B. 99% of the people do not swap cars on a regular basis.

  • by Jaqenn ( 996058 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @10:42AM (#40828695)
    The issue here is that technology has progressed to a point that we're discovering that it's possible to have a situation that's never been a problem before.

    If you look at the warrant process, it's attempting to keep the government from messing with you unless they have 'a good reason'. Having a detective follow a suspect around to see what they do has, up until now, been naturally limited by funding and manpower to cases where the police had 'a good reason', and so we've never had to make up external limits on the activity.

    As police activity becomes less and less limited by funding and manpower, we have to check if we need to start imposing outside limitations instead.
  • by jellomizer ( 103300 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @10:42AM (#40828699)

    I had a friend who got a $300 fine for driving with expired registration in the mail, because a police car flagged his car (Flagged when he was driving to the DMV to renew it), then months later they mailed him the fine, because the city needed some extra revenue. The same thing with traffic camera. I am OK with them monitoring the road, but if you are going to fine someone it should be done in real time. A parking ticket, when you get back to your car, you know you made a mistake. You run a red light, then you see Blue (or Red in NY) blinking behind you, you know what you did. These Delayed fines, are not helpful in solving bad behaviors, because too much time has gone by. Chances are the person doesn't even remember the act.
    We have all made mistakes, and not get caught.
    I have Ran Red Lights, not out of malice or being in a rush, but my mind was focusing on the car in front of me, or the guy tailgating me from behind, or just a brain fart of thinking Red is Go and Green is stop. (Red and Green are opposite colors and if you see the lights out of your direct vision, they can seem the same color.)

    I have missed the Do not turn on Red Signs (as they place them where you can't read the sign if you are stopped at a red light.)

    It is part of a bigger problem of Government thinking it is OK, to make revenue off of Fines, Then working hard to try to catch people breaking them.

    Lets put the Traffic Lights upside down, so we can flag all the color blind people (or sideways like in Rochester, NY). Or lets make all the stop signs Green Circles. The heck with safety, we just need to bring in revenue.

  • by blahplusplus ( 757119 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @10:45AM (#40828745)

    ... in the modern era. What about GEO IP location, or identifying people by their IP address + browsing history (everytime you visit a website, multiple websites are tracking you).

    Buzzwords like: Ad Serving, Traffic Analytics, Content Customization, are just euphamisms for identifying end users, their interests, spending habits, etc.

    The below company has blizzard entertainment and others as a clients, you can bet they are using it to identify where their users live, what their income levels are, etc. It's trivial to identify people once you have enough information. Especially isnce IP addresses often give away a persons physical location. []

    No one has the resources to deal with it, it's like piracy you can't stop it even if you'd want to and big business has an interest in furthering its criminality and criminalizing anything that gets in its way.

  • by h4rr4r ( 612664 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @10:50AM (#40828821)

    Haha no.
    What would happens is agency 1 and 2 and 3 would all sell data to clearinghouses 4,5 and 6. The Government or anyone really would just go to the clearinghouses to get it.

  • by Overzeetop ( 214511 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @10:50AM (#40828823) Journal

    IMO, it comes down to the storage of the data. Regardless of the actual purpose, the storage of the data means that it can be accessed for purposes which may or may not be in the interest of the general public. More troubling is that storage of any data leaves it vulnerable to loss or theft, where it can be used by people who do not have authorization. If one thing has been proven time and again, it is that stored data has a finite chance of being lost, stolen, or leaked - and no matter what penalties you create, nothing you can do will get that data back.

    Correlation of data and movement patterns is also somewhat of a concern, but moreso for people who prefer to be anonymous in their daily lives. It's a relatively small but vocal group - at least vocal here on slashdot. One could suggest that the use of credit cards and frequent shopper cards in return for discounts is a "fair trade" of money for divulging personal information. In the case of police actions, it could be argued that the reduced need for personnel to manually monitor these things reduces overall costs and thus results in an effective reduction in taxes (example: both Maryland and Virginia have operated the past two years with roughly 12% lower tax income - about $2 Billion/yr combined; taxes really do go down sometimes). The question still must be asked - does the benefit of the "service" justify the cost.

    If the system were incapable of storing data, I suspect it would not be nearly as much of a concern, but there would still some outcry against the perceived 24/7 monitoring.

  • Doomed (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Sloppy ( 14984 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @10:51AM (#40828841) Homepage Journal

    If we look at things optimistically, you may successfully persuade police departments and other government agencies to ignore this publicly visible data.

    But regardless of whether you succeed at that or not, if you concentrate on the scanning tech rather than the visible plate, then you have a 0% chance of addressing the privacy concerns. Even if you stop government from looking at the plates, what about the other 99% of the population who is able to see the plates?

    This reminds me of situations where people send plaintext emails, find out the one of the dozens or hundreds of parties who is able to read those emails (government) happens to actually be doing it, and then say that making government stop doing that, will solve the problem. *facepalm*

    Either become ok with your license plate being a cookie, or lobby to end license plates (and that, I admit, is a very hard position to take). There is no middle solution, and approaches that involve putting scanning genies back into bottles, are stupid on the face of it and 100% guaranteed to not work -- and even that is assuming you can get government to do what you want.

  • by C0L0PH0N ( 613595 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @11:18AM (#40829167)
    The real threat, that the ACLU knows very clearly, is that the clearest path to government oppression of its citizens is to follow the path of China and other totalitarian regimes, and put together a massive dossier on every citizen. Then, anytime the government wants to crack down on a citizen, it has all the information it needs to put the citizen away. As any police officer will tell you, with over 5,000 federal laws, and countless local state and municipal laws, every citizen breaks laws without even knowing it, and if they follow you in a cruiser, then eventually can legally pull you over. What protects us is that most miniscule violations are not on the books. But if the government can collect 100% of all the information technology increasingly permits, they will begin to get 100% information. This will not harm you until the government decides to focus its laser power on YOU. There is little in this world as powerful as government, which can bring down the powerful, the wealthy, even the lawmakers. The ACLU has this one right - our government needs to be limited in the information it gathers on us.
  • by wealthychef ( 584778 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @11:18AM (#40829169)
    Rather than focus on preventing government from spying on us and collecting information on us, which is futile, we need to focus on collecting information about our government and the actions of elected officials and making it transparent and easy to access for all citizens. The problem is that there is an inequality in the available information and that leads to too much government power. I seriously think our congressmen should be filmed 24/7 and all their motions made public, perhaps 1 year later to avoid the threat of assassination.
  • by CanHasDIY ( 1672858 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @11:33AM (#40829371) Homepage Journal

    The law in it's present state allows this sort of monitoring.

    Actually, it it doesn't; [] the only reason the federals get to take carte blanche with regard to ignoring Constitutional limitations is because they hold the states hostage via extortion, i.e. "pass this draconian law / allow us to enforce this unconstitutional law in your state, or we'll pull funding from your critical programs." Personally, I don't imagine any elected President would have the balls to actually pull funding, especially during an election year, but the threat seems to be sufficient to keep the states enslaved, er, in line.

    The only out I see at this point is to return power to the states by producing what we need on our own, without federal dollars. Barring that, we're screwed.

    We after all do vote for these politicians.

    Yup, and it matters not, a single iota. [] Besides, voting out one lobbyist-controlled, billionaire criminal to replace them with another lobbyist-controlled, billionaire criminal hasn't worked for us yet; what's the point in continuing to flog that poor dead horse?

  • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @11:35AM (#40829403)

    Technically, they ARE in a position to actually do something, and yet here we are, still helpless.

    As a private citizen [], how is Russ Feingold in a position to do anything? His defeat in 2010 shows that being the only senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act, and taking other stands in defense of civil liberties, is not particularly popular.

  • by uncqual ( 836337 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @12:03PM (#40829741)

    The law in it's present state allows this sort of monitoring.

    Actually, it it doesn't

    There's nothing in the BoR or constitutional case law that even remotely prevents this sort of monitoring. State issued license plates are (in most cases) required on vehicles driven on public streets. They are, and must, remain visible to all. A police officer, your neighbor, or a random guy on the street can see them. There is no expectation of privacy of your license number. Anyone can take a picture or video of your car, and its license number, on a public street - they can even use a telephoto lens. They can do almost anything they like with the images, including extracting license numbers from the images.

  • Re:Privacy is dead (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @12:31PM (#40830081) Journal

    the best question to ask in this case is what are you doing that you require such privacy?

    None of your damned business.

  • by uncqual ( 836337 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @01:56PM (#40831351)
    Your understanding of the Constitution is obviously at odds with virtually all precedent. Perhaps you're living in an alternate universe.

    OK, first, let's get rid of this "random person" fallacy - My neighbors/random people have zero interest in what I do from day-to-day, and the feeling is reciprocal, rightly so. If a random person/neighbor were to follow me around everywhere I go, keeping a log of everything I do, regardless of whether or not I am in public, I can have them arrested for stalking/harassment, because it is illegal for people to harass each other in such a way. Not to mention, my neighbors/random people do not profit from the incarceration of myself or anyone else.

    Nope. You might be able to get a restraining order against them that includes not tracking you -- but generally only if there's some other factor involved (such as explicit or implicit threats). Private detectives working on, for example, workman comp cases track, follow, photograph people all the time.

    The one exception is that you mention "regardless of whether or not I am in public". It is true that a random person can't legally come into your house to watch you eat dinner without your approval. Nor, generally, can the police without the approval of the court. The license plate scanners are only looking at publicly visible plates so the only part of your statement that is correct is irrelevant to the topic at hand and is a red herring. Nice try.

    In no logical sense are the two (government / private citizens) comparable - Put the strawman down, and step away slowly.

    Yes, the government has more power than a private citizen, so you are correct in that regard. But, again, this works against you. For example, as a private citizen I can not detain you, charge you with a crime, try you, convict you, and imprison you for life - but various government actors can, and do, regularly. A police officer has just as much right to observe your behavior without your approval as a private citizen does.

    It is true that if I break into your house, without coordination with law enforcement officials, and observe that you have bodies of a bunch of missing children piled in your bedroom, I can go tell the police and they can then use my information to get a search warrant and what they find is admissible. If, however, a police officer entered your house w/o cause and without a warrant, the fact that the bodies were found would likely be inadmissible (under the exclusionary rule - an invention of the SCOTUS to deter abuses by law enforcement). Note, however, that if police break into your house because of an immediate threat, such as smoke billowing from the roof and someone screaming inside, and observe the bodies while looking for the screaming person, the bodies and their location would likely be admissible.

    Does the Fifth Amendment not say "No person... shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself?" Or does tracking my movements, waiting for me to slip up, then using said movements against me somehow not constitute self-incrimination?

    Not worth responding to, but I will anyway. NO. Self incrimination is requiring you to speak/testify in a way that will tend to incriminate you. Even things that you said voluntarily and were recorded (such as voice mails you left long before arrest or even before you were a suspect) or a videotaped confession after you were properly informed of your rights can be used against you in a court of law. Nor is the Fifth Amendment a restriction on the actions of anyone else. The Fifth Amendment doesn't even, for example, prevent the government from taking a DNA sample from you with a court order (which are routinely granted) -- because giving up your DNA is not incriminating yourself - your DNA is physical evidence.

    Really? So the Fourth Amendment does not state that "The right of the people to be secure in their person

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