ACLU Calls for Massachusetts Moratorium on Controversial License Plate Reader
Statute Laying out Clear Rules and Oversight Needed in Light of Revelations about Program Now Suspended by Boston Police
December 14, 2013
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BOSTON – The ACLU of Massachusetts calls for a moratorium on the use of controversial and unregulated license plate scanner technology in all Massachusetts police departments, following a Boston Globe exposé of problems in the Boston Police Department’s program.
The story, published in today’s Globe, shows that contrary to officials’ claims about why departments need the technology, police routinely do not respond to live ‘hits’ alerting them to the location of stolen cars. This suggests that the program is, as the ACLU feared, largely oriented towards compiling vast databases enabling the warrantless tracking of millions of innocent motorists.
In response to these alarming findings, the Boston Police Department announced it would suspend the program, at least until proper oversight and procedures are put into place.
“The Globe’s investigation into the Boston Police Department’s license plate reader program, based largely on a series of public records requests initiated nearly a year ago, confirms that police departments need outside oversight and guidance in order to responsibly use this powerful technology. We applaud the Boston police decision to suspend the program,” said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty project at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “In light of these disturbing revelations, no police department in the state should continue to use this technology until the legislature passes the License Plate Privacy Act. We need uniform statewide rules for departments’ use of plate readers.”
Currently the Massachusetts State Police and more than 50 cities and towns deploy license plate scanners, which snap photographs of each license plate they encounter, noting the time, date and location, and run the plate numbers against “hot lists” to identify stolen cars, outstanding warrants and other violations. Today, no license plate reader program in the state is subject to outside regulation.
“The License Plate Privacy Act will establish accountability and public transparency requirements to ensure that the kinds of abuses the Globe uncovered at the Boston Police Department are not happening in other cities and towns,” said Crockford. “Technologies that target ordinary Americans going about their everyday lives create tremendous opportunity for abuse, without keeping us safe. We must ensure that the law keeps pace with these new technologies.”
The License Plate Privacy Act allows departments to use license plate readers to identify cars associated with criminal suspects or crimes, while preventing the government from amassing databases containing the historical travel records of millions of innocent people.
“The Globe’s investigation makes crystal clear that departments cannot police their own use of this complex and powerful tool,” said Crockford. “The legislature must step in to provide some basic rules, as well as checks and balances to make sure license plate readers aren’t used for warrantless tracking of innocent drivers. The Joint Transportation Committee should recommend swift approval of the License Plate Privacy Act, the legislature should pass it, and the Governor should sign it into law.”
Advanced surveillance tools can work to promote public safety while simultaneously respecting the privacy and liberty interests that help our Commonwealth thrive, but in order for that to happen the law needs to catch up with the technology. The License Plate Privacy Act strikes the right balance. Police departments statewide should follow Boston’s lead and immediately halt their use of the technology until the legislature acts.
More information on the License Plate Privacy Act is available at:
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