Are automatic license plate readers a violation of privacy?

The cars roll by at 65 mph. And, though the drivers aren’t aware, their license plate numbers are being recorded and checked.

A car used in an armed robbery might be discovered one hour, a stolen car the next.

Typically, the three automatic license plate readers that are mounted to a law enforcement patrol car can snap images of thousands of license plates a day. In a matter of seconds, a device converts the plate numbers in the photos into text that is checked against police agencies’ databases.

But the readers, used in metro Atlanta and other parts of Georgia also scoop up the license plate information of parents driving their kids to school, commuters going to work and families headed out of town for the holidays. And that in itself, some argue, is an invasion of privacy. As the government trolls for lawbreakers, they say, it is also collecting information on the movement of law-abiding citizens.

“We try not to be too conspiratorial, but it’s kind of a slippery slope,” said Chad Brock, legislative counsel at the ACLU of Georgia.

The Georgia State Patrol and police departments in Atlanta, Sandy Springs and Gwinnett County are among the Georgia law enforcement agencies that use the readers. As technology improves and the costs drop, more police agencies are expected to use them.

The value of the readers as crime-fighting tools is evident. The camera systems run constantly and unobtrusively capturing images and comparing the numbers to the database in a split second. An alarm sounds when a match is made, and the computer screen displays the license plate number, the registered owner, whether the car is suspected in a crime and the direction it was heading when photographed.

But are concerned about how the information is stored and protected, Brock said.

Law enforcement agencies say they make every effort to protect stored information.

“It’s like any type of information or technology. There’s always going to be the potential for abuse,” said Lt. Kermit Stokes, who oversees the program for the Georgia Department of Public Safety. “You have to have good procedures … and (be) mindful of what it’s for and how it’s used.”

On a national level, the ACLU is concerned some police agencies are using private companies, rather than the government agencies that collects the information, to store it. The ACLU said it knows of no agencies in Georgia that use private companies.

The organization also worries that information from the cameras is being funneled to a national repository. Only a few states are addressing concerns the information could be misused.

In Georgia, the readers can be used however law enforcement sees fit. New Hampshire bans the use of automatic license plate readers, and Maine law says the data must be purged within 21 days unless it’s part of a criminal investigation. New Jersey law says information can only be kept only five years. Massachusetts, California, Connecticut and Michigan are considering laws limiting the use of automatic license plate readers.

In the meanwhile, the national ACLU and state affiliates are asking dozens of law enforcement agencies for precise details about the automatic license plate readers they use — what data from the license plate readers is collected, how it is stored and who has access to it.

What the ACLU learns will determine if lawsuits will be filed.

“Unfortunately, law enforcement agencies are increasingly moving towards a ‘keep everything, share widely’ formula concerning ALPR [automatic license plate reader] data,” the ACLU has said in statements to the media. “The biggest problem with ALPR systems is the creation of databases with location information on every motorist who encounters the system, not just those whom the government suspects of criminal activity. Police departments nationwide are using ALPR to quietly accumulate millions of plate records, storing them in back end databases. While the ACLU doesn’t know the full extent of this problem, the ACLU knows that responsible deletion of data is the exception, not the norm.”

In Georgia, ACLU has used the state’s Open Records Act to requests that information from the Atlanta Police Department, the DeKalb Police Department and the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, which gives smaller police agencies money to buy systems. The systems cost $12,000 to $18,000 per car.

So far the Georgia agencies have not given the ACLU what it requested.

Other ACLU chapters, as well as the national office, have run into similar problems.

Consequently, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and the national ACLU sued the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security in September federal court because they refused to release any information about the use of the technology.

The Georgia State Patrol has been using the cameras since 2004, according to Lt. Kermit Stokes, who oversees the program for the Georgia Department of Public Safety.

He said only he and one other person have access to the data the State Patrol collects and each entry “ages out” of the system at six months.

GSP, like other local agencies in Georgia, primarily use it to look for stolen cars or autos connected to crimes. But the patrol also is working on a pilot project with the state Department of Revenue to target cars with expired tags or cars with tax liens.

Only 31 out of 800 State Patrol cars are outfitted with automatic license plate readers.

The Atlanta Police Department has been using automatic license plate readers since 2007 and now 11 of its patrol cars are equipped with them. Spokesman Carlos Campos said APD uses the readers for more than tracking stolen cars. “It allows us to pinpoint the last known location of a vehicle that may have been used in a crime,” he said.

Campos said the only data APD retains is license plate information, location of the vehicle and the date and time.

“There is no personal data stored,” he said.

“If the system matches a tag to a stolen vehicle, only then would the officer pull up additional information” such as the name of the person to whom the car is registered, Campos said.

Only one out of 130 patrol cars in the Sandy Springs Police Department fleet has an automatic license plate reader, according to Capt. Steve Rose. He said that one car was credited with about 11 million “reads” in the past year. The stored information has been used to find suspects, missing persons and sex offenders using the date, time and GPS stamps.

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