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Rhode Island ACLU Seeks Details on Automatic License Plate Readers as Part of Nationwide Request

Posted: July 30, 2012|Category: Privacy

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The Rhode Island ACLU today joined with affiliates in 37 other states in filing open records requests with local police departments and state agencies to find out how they use automatic license plate readers (ALPR) to track and record Americans’ movements.

ALPRs are cameras mounted on patrol cars (or sometimes on stationary objects along roads) that snap a photograph of every license plate that enters their fields of view. Typically, each photo is time, date, and GPS-stamped, stored, and sent to a database, which provides an alert to a patrol officer whenever a match or “hit” appears.

In Rhode Island, the ACLU is aware that at least one police department – Providence – makes use of this technology. In addition, a bill introduced this year in the Rhode Island General Assembly would have further sanctioned the installation of ALPRs on police cruisers as a way to detect and pursue uninsured motorists. The bill died in committee.

ALPRs are spreading rapidly around the country, but the public has little information about how they are used to track motorists’ movements, including how long data collected by ALPRs is stored, and whether police departments pool this information in state, regional or national databases. ALPRs can be used as a tool for mass routine location tracking and surveillance and to collect and store information not just on people suspected of crimes, but on every single motorist.

In addition to filing a detailed open records request with the Providence Police Department to obtain information on how it is using ALPRs, the Rhode Island ACLU filed requests with the state’s seven other city police departments, the State Police and the state agency that administers federal criminal justice grants in order to find out if any of them are using, or have plans to purchase, ALPR equipment.

Both Maine and New Hampshire have enacted laws to severely limit the use of ALPR technology. Based on the results of the open records requests, the Rhode Island ACLU may seek the introduction of similar legislation in the General Assembly in 2013.

ACLU Policy Associate Hillary Davis said today: “ALPR technology allows law enforcement to indefinitely record the movements of any motorist, regardless of their participation in any criminal behavior, and store these records in a database creating a detailed map of our movements throughout the day. The use of this technology is a very real step toward cataloging and tracking the movements of every person on the road and, disturbingly, remains largely unregulated in Rhode Island and nationwide.”

More information about the nationwide effort is available at: www.aclu.org/plates.

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