License Plate Readers Raise Privacy Concerns

The ACLU says it is worried that the programs are being used for more than they were intended

License plate readers, a tool often touted by law enforcement, have raised privacy concerns by the ACLU over the federal government’s access to those plates’ numbers.

San Diego County agencies use the readers to capture plates and the date, time and locations of where they were spotted. That information is stored in a database managed by SANDAG and accessed by local, state and even some federal agencies.

The Drug Enforcement Agency has said it uses the databases in border states like California to monitor vehicle used for drug trafficking.

But a Wall Street Journal report revealed the DEA expanded the plate reading application to track people accused of other crimes, such as rape, murder and kidnapping.

The ACLU calls it a classic case of “mission creep and privacy invasion.”

“It’s the government having the ability to create a permanent surveillance state,” said David Loy, an attorney with the ACLU. “Tracking everyone’s movement in real time wherever they go. That’s not the kind of America most people want to live in.”

While the group isn’t opposed to using license plate readers to solve crimes, they believe a standard set of rules needs to be adopted for its use. The ACLU is calling for strictly regulated access to the databases to make sure privacy is not exploited.

Cmdr. David Myers with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department says video from the readers is only accessed for investigative reasons, and it helped them crack the high-profile murders of Chelsea King and Amber Dubois.

“It’s helped us detect child molesters, helped us detect rapists, contact and find bank robbers. It’s an investigative tool,” said Myers.

According to SANDAG, car-mounted video is kept in their database for two years. Video from fixed cameras placed on poles is kept for one year. Next month, SANDAG’s board is expected to approve a change in policy so that all video is kept for just one year.

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