Police departments around the country have been compiling databases on the travels of innocent motorists. The tracking is made possible by automated license plate reader technology (ALPR, also known as ANPR in Europe), the deployment of which is backed by funding from federal gas tax dollars appropriated without any public debate or oversight.
The American Civil Liberties Union yesterday announced a campaign to increase transparency in the way ALPR is used. The liberal activist group used its network of affiliates to blanket local, state and federal law enforcement offices with freedom of information requests designed to force disclosure of key documents that may shed light on what is currently being done with the devices.
A standalone ALPR system is essentially the same as speed camera without the radar speed sensor. A video camera records every passing vehicle while optical character recognition software reads the license plate and looks up the vehicle's owner. Instead of issuing that person a ticket, the device records the time and date his vehicle drove past and stores it in a searchable database. The systems are so similar that photo enforcement vendors already use their automated ticketing machines to perform ALPR services for municipal customers.
"As ALPRs increasingly blanket American roads and highways, they raise the prospect of pervasive and prolonged surveillance of Americans' movements, a problem exacerbated when law enforcement agencies keep data about people not suspected of wrongdoing, and when data from discrete ALPR systems is pooled together into state, regional and even national databases," ACLU staff attorney Catherine Crump wrote Monday in the group's request to the US Department of Transportation.
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