The National ACLU has released the results of its analysis of more than 26,000 pages of documents from police departments in cities and towns across the country, obtained through freedom of information requests by ACLU affiliates in 38 states (including Vermont) and Washington, D.C. The documents concern the use of automated license plate readers (ALPRs). It's become increasingly clear that we are living in an era of mass surveillance facilitated by ever cheaper and more powerful computing technology.

ALPR camera on cruiser roof. ALPR camera mounted on cruiser roof. Wikicommons

ALPRs, little known before this year, are another example of a disturbing phenomenon: The government is increasingly using new technology to collect information about all of us, all the time, and to store it whether we are suspected of committing a crime or just going about our everyday lives. While the National Security Agency and its surveillance operations may seem distant, systems like ALPRs are here in our local communities, operated by local law enforcement, and the information is stored – in Vermont’s case – at a Homeland Security-supported “Fusion Center” in Williston.


Here’s more detail, if you’re interested ….

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.

ALPR systems use digital cameras and optical character-recognition software to read the numbers and letters on license plates. The cameras can be attached to police cruisers or mounted on stationary objects such as bridges or traffic lights. The cameras Vermont police have can capture about 1,800 plates per hour, or 14,400 during an eight-hour shift, with an accuracy rate of about 95 percent.

When an image is captured, it’s given a date and time stamp, and with most systems a GPS location stamp. The operator of the system hears a “ping” if the plate is on a “hot list” – a list of plates registered to owners whose licenses have been suspended, for whom an arrest warrant has been issued, who has outstanding traffic tickets, or who reported the car stolen.

All the images captured during an officer’s shift are uploaded to a Vermont Department of Public Safety database in Waterbury. It is eventually passed on to the Vermont Fusion Center in Williston (technically known as the state’s “Information and Analysis Center”.) This center is one of 77 such facilities around the country, one for every state plus, where all sorts of data about people in the region are aggregated.

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 joined with other ACLU affiliates in making a number of public records requests to state and local law enforcement agencies, asking for details of their ALPR systems.

What we found disturbed us. We thought that only a few departments had the sophisticated systems. Instead, we learned that more than two dozen did, spread around the state. The systems were all linked to upload data to the central database in Waterbury.

Most disturbing was the fact all this data was being retained for a minimum of four years. That was way beyond the length of time most agencies in other states save the data; the typical data retention period is 10 to 90 days.

State public safety officials said a general operations manual governed use of the camera systems. But there was no oversight of the systems either by legislation or by the courts. We felt that needed to change. We worked with Sen. Tim Ashe, who introduced S. 18, to set guidelines for ALPR use.

We told legislative committees that our concerns were:

  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.

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 learned that at the moment, the state’s ALPR systems are not linked to the Department of Motor Vehicles database, so instant identification of the owner of a car whizzing past is not possible.

S. 18 was reworked numerous times. It finally passed both chambers on the last day of the session in May. Its major provisions are:

  • The length of time data may be retained was shortened from four years to 18 months (we had pushed for 30 days). Police may ask a court to order preservation of data for longer periods if the data’s possible connection to a crime can be shown.
  • Who can have access to the data and under what circumstances are clearly defined.
  • Annual reporting on the use of ALPRs and data requests is required.

The bill represents, as far as we know, the first time the Vermont legislature has regulated “big data.” This first step was an introduction to the world of sophisticated government surveillance tools. Maybe these tools weren’t created or purchased to build a surveillance society, but they can be used that way. We want to guard against that happening in Vermont. It can, if the public is not informed or citizens don’t take action to prevent misuse of these technologies.