Are automatic license plate readers violating your privacy?


As the ABC11 I-Team reports, that's because high-tech cameras are now tracking your movements with no laws to regulate, or limit, them.

"These ALPRs capture thousands of licenses per minute," said Sarah Preston with the American Civil Liberties Union.

ALPRs are automatic license plate readers.

"They're building a sort of infrastructure where the government can keep track of its citizens," said Preston.

It's a booming business.  The technology is easy to find online. Small cameras usually mounted on police cars and overpasses snap pictures of every license plate that goes by -- as many as 1,500 per minute.

The pictures are stamped with time and location, sent to a central database, and stored as long as the agency wants. For the ACLU, it scream "surveillance state."

In New York, they were using them to pick up the license plates of everybody who was attending mosques, to figure out who was going to mosques and basically profiling using the ALPRs.

Currently, there is no policy in North Carolina to prohibit their use.

"We're getting closer and closer to Big Brother," said State Sen. Floyd McKissick, (D) Durham County.

That's why McKissick introduced legislation this year to regulate ALPRs. It didn't go anywhere, but McKissick says he'll keep trying and expects bi-partisan support.

"To have it open ended and unregulated I think would be a serious mistake and an intrusion on people's privacy," said McKissick.

Nearly a dozen agencies in the state use ALPRs. They have very different policies on how the information can be used and how long it can be held for. In charlotte, that's 18 months. In Raleigh, which has one of the stricter policies, it's six months.

"It would only be used to track a vehicle or a plate that might be connected to a crime," said Raleigh Police Department spokesman Jim Sughrue

Sughrue says ALPRs are most useful finding stolen cars or plates, but they can also help with more serious investigations. It's information that can help convict or absolve.

"I think the public and journalists would be more concerned if such a crime fighting technology was available and police departments decided not to use it," said Sughrue.

However, it's far from clear how helpful ALPRs really are.

Sughrue didn't give the ABC11 I-Team stats on Raleigh's program, but we know in High Point last year police snapped more than 39,000 plates and got just 39 hits That's a 0.001 success rate.

That may be 39 crimes that might not have been solved otherwise, but it's also information on tens of thousands of people who did nothing wrong who are now in a police database.

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