ALPRs may not have been intended to be sophisticated surveillance tools, but that's how they can be used. And that's why the ACLU is concerned about their proliferation in Vermont.

license plateALPR stands for “Automated License Plate Reader.” It’s a device that uses digital cameras and optical character-recognition software to read the numbers and letters on license plates. The device can be affixed to police cruisers or mounted on stationary objects such as bridges or traffic lights. The cameras can capture about 2,000 plates per hour or 14,400 plates during an eight-hour shift, with an accuracy rate of about 95%.

When an image is captured, it’s given a date and time stamp, and with most systems a GPS location stamp. The data is entered into a computer database. Calling up the license plate number tells you where the car was seen on what date and at what time.

We first heard about ALPRs being used in Vermont in 2010. We became more concerned about them as numerous departments obtained the systems, often through Homeland Security grants.

Wanting to know more, in the summer of 2012 we made a number of public records requests to state and local law enforcement agencies, asking for details of their ALPR systems.

The responses revealed that 31 departments, located all around the state, had systems. Data was being gathered on the local level but then transmitted to state Department of Public Safety computers in Waterbury. There, it was combined with data from all other agencies in a common database covering the entire state. This increased the value of the data immensely, since the system could effectively be used to track someone’s whereabouts as they travel around the state.

Most disturbing was the fact all this data was being retained for a minimum of four years. That is way beyond the length of time most agencies in other states save the data; the typical data retention period is 10-90 days. (Only one other state – New Jersey -- saves data for four years, while one state -- New York -- retains it indefinitely.)

And Vermont’s saved data was apparently being kept in the state’s Fusion Center – now called the state’s “Information and Analysis Center.” The state’s Fusion Center is one of 77 centers around the country, one for every state plus, where all sorts of data about people in the region are aggregated.

There is currently no regulation or oversight of ALPRs, either by legislation or by the courts. We feel strongly that needs to change. That’s why we were in the Senate Transportation Committee Wednesday to offer support for S. 18, a bill introduced by Sen. Tim Ashe to set guidelines for ALPR use.

We told the committee our concerns are these:

  1. Citizens’ right to privacy is affected whenever government records movements of individuals who are not subjects of an investigation.
  2. Key questions about ALPRs are, Who has access to the data? How it is being used? and How long is the data available?
  3. The legislature needs to develop guidelines for ALPR use and put in place strong privacy protections so the information collected about drivers’ whereabouts is used only for defined law enforcement purposes. We support S. 18 – although we feel it could be strengthened. We have proposed an alternative bill that we think better protects individuals’ privacy.

Based on testimony given Wednesday by state law enforcement officials, Vermont’s ALPR system is focused on identifying drivers wanted for specific infractions. Their plate numbers are put on “hot lists,” which are loaded onto the computers receiving the images snapped by cameras mounted on cruisers. A “ding” sounds if a car with a plate number on the hot list drives past. The officer in the cruiser can pursue the car or radio for assistance.

State officials said a general operations manual governs use of the camera systems that tie into the centralized state database. Currently, the state’s ALPR systems are not linked to the Department of Motor Vehicles database, the officials said, so instant identification of the owner of a car whizzing past is not possible.

The state officials told senators that “Privacy issues warrant discussion, but these (systems) are effective tools for law enforcement.” They promised cooperation in working out appropriate standards.

We look forward to privacy issues being addressed. But our concern remains that – as with all sophisticated technological systems – “mission creep” will set in. The original stated purpose for using ALPRs will fall away as the utility of other uses is identified. While not designed as a surveillance tool tracking ordinary citizens, ALPRs could easily be used that way.