New technology, another new debate

Wednesday August 22, 2012

The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont is doing its job in questioning the use of Automated License Plate Recognition systems by law enforcement agencies and departments. Questions about every new information-gathering or surveillance-oriented technological advance inevitably arise, and this proves no exception.

The equipment allows license plates to be read by cameras mounted on police cruisers. The plate information is then relayed through a database, and an officer is alerted if a vehicle is not registered, or if the registered owner has outstanding warrants, a suspended license or other issues arise that would draw the interest of law enforcement.

Allen Gilbert, executive director of ACLU-VT, told Banner reporter Neal Goswami that the Vermont affiliate has received information from the state on the use of ALPRs through freedom of information requests. He said they learned enough to raise concerns over the potential for violation of civil liberties.

Mr. Gilbert said the ACLU learned that the state has created a centralized database that stores license plate information that has been scanned by the devices used by police. He said ACLU affiliates around the country are now trying to determine what information is being collected and stored by law enforcement. Concerns include who has access to the data and how it is being used -- and for how long.

It appears, he said, that information collected even on vehicles not considered suspicious is being stored for up to four years in Vermont. This means that the movements of law abiding citizens could be tracked through their vehicles, which potentially could lead to abuses and violations of civil liberties.

On the other hand, as Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette pointed out in the article, police have received only positive comments about the plate-reading devices. In fact, they are an effective tool in quickly determining whether a vehicle is stolen or might be driven by someone wanted for a crime.

In addition, the scanning can occur at a much more rapid rate and with greater accuracy than a police officer monitoring traffic and attempting to remember bulletins for suspect vehicles. Just driving through Bennington, in other words, puts anyone wanted by law enforcement agencies or driving a stolen vehicle under an electronic microscope with an alarm bell attached.

What is needed then is clarity through legislation on what information should be collected, who should have access to that database and how long the information should be stored if there was no suspicious activity. But as for the technology itself, we doubt many citizens would want to seriously hamper its use.


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