License Plate Readers Vs. Privacy

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licLAW ENFORCEMENT’S USE of automated license plate readers has drawn increasing controversy in recent years amid concerns that the devices pose a threat to privacy. Now, internal documents show that the FBI, based on a recommendation from its own lawyers, was told to stop buying the devices for a time in 2012.

The documents, obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through a public records request, show the FBI’s own Office of General Counsel was grappling with concerns about the agency’s use of the technology and the apparent lack of a cohesive government policy to protect the civil liberties of citizens whose vehicles are photographed by the readers. That apparently prompted an order from the OGC to temporarily put the brakes on further purchases.

It’s not known when the FBI resumed purchasing the devices, but the revelations show that even within the FBI there are those who have questioned the privacy implications of a technology widely seen by some as invasive.

Civil liberties groups argue that the readers, widely used not only by the FBI but by local police departments around the country, and the databases that store the license plate images pose a fundamental risk to privacy because in the aggregate they can reveal sensitive information about a person’s travels and activities. Critics of the technology also say the readers capture more than just license plate numbers. A California man who filed a public records request to receive copies of images collected by his local law enforcement agency obtained more than 100 images of his vehicle in various locations, including one that showed him and his daughters exiting their car while it was parked in their driveway

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