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License Plate Readers: Protecting National Security Interests or Infringing on Civil Liberties?

By   /  April 10, 2013  /  No Comments

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With ever increasing modern technologies, American citizens are constantly subject to numerous forms of government-sanctioned surveillance. From physical surveillance, such as gunfire locators and license plate readers, to informational surveillance, such as analysis of Internet browsing history and financial records, the government is able to amass a significant amount of information pertaining to individuals’ lives. Further, those subject to surveillance are not only suspected terrorist and criminals but also innocent citizens. While all of these technologies serve an important purpose and enable law enforcement to protect against suspected terrorists and criminals, that purpose must be counter balanced with the need to protect individual liberties and personal privacy.

Specifically, license plate readers have the ability to read hundreds of license plates per minute and transmit that date to law enforcement officers. License plate readers alert law officers if the license plate corresponds to a vehicle that has been reported stolen, with a vehicle that’s registration has been suspended, or if the person to whom the vehicle is registered has an outstanding arrest warrant. Thus, law officers can stop vehicles that are suspected of being involved in terrorist or criminal activities without actually witnessing that activity. When used correctly, license plate readers can stop potential crimes before they happen; however, law officers must ensure this technology is used appropriately so as not to create a surveillance society.

There is a very real potential that law officers’ use of license plate readers could be unconstitutional. The International Association of Chiefs of Police noted that the technology could be used to infringe upon first amendment rights, such as using it with cars that are parked outside of places where known anti-war organizations are meeting, or could be used to sell the data to private firms, thus infringing on citizens’ right to privacy.

The American Civil Liberties Union is also very concerned over the potential infringements that license plate readers pose on personal liberties and individual privacy. Over the past few years, the ACLU has filed a number of suits against federal agencies to compel production of documents and information that has been procured by these surveillance technologies. The ACLU’s lawsuits were filed following the organizations failed requests for documents from the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security under the Freedom of Information Act.

This lawsuit stems from the fear that license plate readers could be used to track individuals, as they record the time and location of hundreds of vehicles per minute. While one federal court reasoned the information sought by the ACLU would give criminals access to information that would allow them to circumvent police measures, license plate readers continue to present a threat to individual liberties and privacy. Further, the ACLU is concerned with the length of time law enforcement and government agencies keep the information gathered by license plate readers. Boston Police records show that information gathered by license plate readers is stored for 90 days, unless officers decide the information is necessary to keep for investigatory or intelligence purposes, thus allowing officers to keep this information for an indefinite period of time.

Thus, while license plate readers and other surveillance equipment serve an important national security function, allowing law officers to more easily apprehend suspected terrorists and criminals, this technology also has the very real possibility of infringing on civil liberties and constitutional rights. Governmental agencies need to take action to protect citizens’ rights while still protecting national security interests. Therefore, strict rules and regulations must be implemented to strike the appropriate balance for all interested parties.


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