ACLU sues to get U.S. agencies' license plate tracking records

FBI, DHS, and other agencies have not complied with ACLU requests for information about use of surveillance system, civil liberties group alleges.

Elinor Mills
Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
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Motorola sells Automated License Plate Readers to police departments for locating stolen or wanted vehicles and identifying parking-ticket scofflaws.
Motorola sells Automated License Plate Readers to police departments for locating stolen or wanted vehicles and identifying parking-ticket scofflaws. Motorola

The American Civil Liberties Union today sued the U.S. government to get access to information about how authorities are using automated license plate readers to track people's movements and location.

The ACLU filed Freedom of Information Act requests on July 30 with the departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Transportation to try to find out how much officials use the technology and how much it is paying to expand the program. Agencies are required by law to respond to FOIA requests within 20 working days, but more than a month later, only one DOJ office and a few DOT agencies have responded, according to the ACLU.

So the advocacy group is asking a federal court in Massachusetts to compel the DHS and other DOJ offices (FBI, Marshals Service, Drug enforcement Agency, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) to comply. The group is administratively appealing the DOT's response, which the ACLU said was insufficient.

Mounted on patrol cars, telephone poles, and under bridges, the automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) can snap a photograph of every license plate that passes by. They also record the time, date, and location based on GPS and send an alert to officers when a license plate is recorded that matches a stolen vehicle, according to the ACLU. The group says it is unclear how long officials retain the data, whether different departments are pooling it in state, regional, and national databases and what purposes it is used for.

"The public deserves to know how federal law enforcement and transportation authorities are using tax dollars, not least when their use may threaten our privacy on the open road," the ACLU said in a blog post. "As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, 'sunlight is the best disinfectant.'"

The ACLU is concerned that the tracking system can be used for broad surveillance on the public and not just those who are suspected of crimes and to see where particular cars were at times in the past, as well as provide in depth "Big Brother"-type location tracking of people's whereabouts without appropriate warrants.

"ALPR systems can read up to 1,800 license plates every minute, creating the possibility of capturing the location of millions of automobiles--and their drivers--every year," the suit says, noting that an increasing number of police departments around the country are deploying them. (PDF)

From the complaint:

The use of ALPRs across the country remains highly unregulated. Only two states--Maine and New Hampshire--have enacted legislation that places limits on law enforcement's use of ALPRs. Elsewhere, little information is known about the government's policies, practices, and procedures for gathering, storing, retaining, and pooling the data collected by ALPR systems. When this information is retained (sometimes indefinitely) and pooled, ALPRs raise the prospect of pervasive and prolonged surveillance of Americans' movements, a problem that is exacerbated when law enforcement agencies retain data about people not suspected of wrongdoing.

A spokesman for the Department of Justice said the agency has no comment at this time. "Once we look at the complaint, we'll determine how we'll ultimately respond in court," Charles Miller, spokesman for the civil division at the Department of Justice, said in an e-mail to CNET.