We've all seen cameras on traffic-light poles, and many of us have noticed police vehicles mounted with similar devices. But did you know so-called license-plate readers can be utilized to track the whereabouts of any driver, whether he or she has violated any laws?
This prospect alarms the Boulder chapter of the ACLU, whose chairman, Judd Golden, has formerly asked Boulder City Council to limit the use of data from such readers, which have been deployed in Boulder for two years. He explains why below.
Golden, who spoke at this week's council meeting, notes that Boulder's ordinance on license-plate readers, passed a few years ago, "precludes private dissemination" of data obtained by the gizmos. Likewise, law-enforcement policy calls for info on "non-violators" to be discarded after ninety days -- although he stresses this edict can be altered at any point. "So," he says, "we're asking council to limit retention in such a way that this could not be reasonably used for all the possible, abusive purposes that have either happened in other places or that put people at risk of having their movements tracked by the police."
The national ACLU has made license-plate readers a focus of late. In July, the organization released a report entitled "You Are Being Tracked;" we've included it below, along with an interactive slide show graphically depicting some of its highlights. And Golden stresses that the concept of tracking individuals isn't simply theoretical. He points to a 2012 report by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in which the paper used open-records request to learn oodles of places where city mayor R.T. Rybak drove and parked thanks to data from license-plate readers.
"They were able to basically reconstruct the mayor's life and put it in the newspaper," Golden points out. "And afterward, he said, 'This technology has gone too far. We need to stop this'" -- by calling for such material to be reclassified as non-public.
In Golden's view, Rybak was right to be alarmed. "These license-plate scanners can capture a photo of not just the license plate. Some of them are now capturing a significant portion of the vehicles, and if it's a front view, you can see the people. They go up and down the street, and they're limited only by how long they're on the road. So what you have is a record of where a vehicle was at during a certain time.
"Now, let's say you've retained your records over a period of six months. You can put in a license plate and basically track wherever that person was. Like, 'Look, he went to the adult book store.' Or 'he's gone to a medical office several times -- hmmmm. Wonder what he's doing there?' There are all these possible ways they can data mine and use that data to create a record of where people go and what they do."
This ability is similar to other examples of data mining that have made national news recently, Golden believes. "Just like people say the NSA shouldn't be gathering all this data on innocent people with the idea that maybe someday we might be able to find a connection with terrorists, the police think, 'We might be able to do some crime-solving.' And that sounds good. But there's so much potential for abuse. If the government is gathering all this data that could ostensibly be used to track where you go and what you do, that thought might chill the willingness of some people to do certain things and go to certain places. And the government being able to reconstruct the location of your vehicle is inimical of what we see as a reasonable expectation of privacy."
Just as concerningly for Golden, "Boulder, as well as other municipalities to the best of my knowledge, are using these things even though there are no government rules that limit what can be done with this data by the police. They do have internal rules in Boulder, but they're basically operating on a trust-us model. For example, the Boulder City Attorney has been saying, 'The Boulder Police won't misuse this. They told us they wouldn't.' But you wouldn't have thought Boulder police officers would take a trophy elk in the middle of the city, either.
"Sometimes people do things that are inconsistent with what the rules say -- so the government has a role in providing protections for innocent people."
As Golden acknowledges, authorities have long had the ability to write down license numbers spotted in certain locations -- something echoed in a scene from The Godfather in which cops get info on who's attending a lavish party thrown by crime boss Vito Corleone. But Golden argues that "you can't write down tens of thousands of license numbers and gather all the data points of the time and place and stitch together a matrix of where people are and where they've been with manual entries. And I don't think that's what the public wants the government to do."
Boulder's supply of license-plate readers is hardly unusual. Many communities have purchased them, often using homeland-security grants. And as they proliferate, Golden fears "they'll start integrating and consolidating these databases. You can imagine someone saying, 'Let's institute a state database -- and if we're going to do that, we should retain the data for a much longer time, so we can have a much greater ability to track vehicles months or even a year later and see if they were parked outside a location where a crime occurred.'"
One argument against restrictions cited by Golden is "'If you're driving legally, what do you have to hide?' But the information could still be used in ways that violate reasonable privacy expectations. Let's say a politician is running for office. He may want to know where his opponent has been, where he's going: 'I'd like to find out why he's parked outside this young woman's house several times,' for example. And what about an anti-government protest? They could put a license-plate reader there and scan all the license plates to see if anyone has any outstanding warrants."
According to Golden, several members of Boulder's city council support limitations on license-plate readers, "and we'll be following up with them" in the hope of getting the topic on an upcoming agenda. In addition, he says a bill on the subject "was introduced in the legislature in the last session. It didn't get through committee, but we expect it to be reintroduced next year and it should have more sponsors -- because we have more to deal with when it comes to this expanding use of surveillance.
"These license-plate readers can track innocent people's locations and movements, and I think we need some protections."
Look below to see an ACLU slide show about license-plate readers, followed by the aforementioned report and Golden's letter to the Boulder City Council.
Boulder County ACLU letter to Boulder City Council:
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Dear City Council Members:
The ACLU urges the Boulder City Council to adopt an ordinance to protect the privacy of countless innocent people whose movements and privacy are at risk from the expanding use of automated license plate readers. We will be at the Council meeting tonight to provide Council members with a copy of the ACLU Report released last month, "You Are Being Tracked."
In 2011, Council enacted BRC Sec. 7-4-74(k). It regulates the non-law enforcement use and retention of license plate images obtained for purposes of parking enforcement. It is time to update and revisit this ordinance.
Since 2011, the Boulder Police have deployed mobile license plate scanners. They were advertised as being a tool to detect stolen cars, but this mission has expanded and will continue to do so, placing the privacy rights of Boulder citizens at risk, unless Council acts.
Like the NSA, that wants to capture and retain data on everyone so perhaps it can be data-mined at a later date, license plate scanner systems are configured to store the photograph, license plate number, and the date, time, and location where all vehicles are seen, not just the data of vehicles that generate "hits." Data on non-violators is retained for ninety days by internal police policy, which could change at any time, and access and use is not subject to Council oversight or prior judicial approval.
The overwhelming majority of people whose movements are monitored and recorded are innocent. Ordinary people going about their daily lives have every right to expect that their movements will not be logged into massive government databases. As the ACLU Report details, legislation is needed to limit license plate reader use to legitimate purposes. We urge Boulder to do so.
Boulder County ACLU Judd Golden, Chapter Chair
More from our News archive circa April 2010: "Nudity ordinance a war on fun in Boulder, says ACLU."