Hey Reddit,

On Wednesday, we released a report on how law enforcement uses license plate readers, an important tool in its surveillance arsenal, to record Americans’ movements. The readers are proliferating around the country and collecting data on millions of innocent Americans – data that is being stored for months or even years. AMA.

We'll begin answering questions at 12pm ET sharp.

Answering questions today are:

  • Kade Crockford (ACLUKade), Director of Technology for Liberty Project, ACLU of Massachusetts

  • Catherine Crump (ACLUCatherine), Staff Attorney, ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project

  • Allie Bohm (ACLUAllie), Advocacy and Policy Strategist, ACLU

  • Bennett Stein (BennettStein ), Legal Assistant, ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project

Proof it’s us: https://twitter.com/ACLU/status/357871464529145856

Update: Thanks for all the great questions! We've got to head out now, but if you want more information on license plate tracking, check out our report: www.aclu.org/alpr

Comments: 116 • Responses: 58  • Date: 

ACLUKade10 karma

Hi everyone. My name is Kade Crockford. I direct the Technology for Liberty project at the ACLU of Massachusetts, where I publish the Privacy Matters blog, available at http://privacysos.org/blog. I've been obsessed with the threat posed by license plate readers (aka trackers) for some time now, and am thrilled about the ACLU's fabulous new report. Happy to be here for my first reddit AMA. Thanks for having us!

r4v51 karma

Kade, your twitter is fucking awesome and one of the main things that keeps me using that site. How does it feel to have someone directly contradict existing facts like they were opinion when responding to you?

ACLUKade2 karma

Haha. I appreciate the love. With respect to people who disagree on twitter, even when there are facts to back me up? That happens off twitter, too! ;)

r4v51 karma

No, I was specifically referring to that license plate news story about how you'd received TONS of documents about the policy (that hadn't been written yet and was only advisory in nature).

ACLUKade2 karma

Ohhhhhhh. Forgive me. Well, that was mighty frustrating! But it seems as if they are finally going to release those records, more than two years after we asked for them. So that's good!

ACLUKade2 karma

And just to clarify what we were complaining about: We didn't say that they released NO records. We said they failed to release any records about the statewide database. That's a fact. And as you observe, the government readily admits it.

NeutralityMentality7 karma

What restrictions, if any, prevent the FBI from creating a national database of vehicular locations? What about the NSA?

ACLUCatherine7 karma

As for the FBI, nothing right now--at least in its view. That's one of the big problems with license plate readers. There aren't enough restrictions in place, and as technology grows more sophisticated we're winding up with bigger and bigger pools of data on where all of us have been.

ACLUKade7 karma

It seems pretty clear that the NSA does not think it is barred from spying on our domestic affairs and compiling mass databases about our associations and habits.

BennettStein5 karma

Hi Everyone, this is Bennett Stein. I am a legal assistant with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy & Technology Project. I authored parts of the license plate report and reviewed many of our responsive documents.

abigailfrillywho4 karma

Sorry to join late. I just read the Atlantic piece on this and it seems like this is a way to circumvent the Supreme Court ruling against GPS trackers. The reason that was struck down by SCOTUS is the same reason this is bad, right? Too much information about our private existence stored in a database? Or is there more?

ACLUCatherine4 karma

Great question. In the Supreme Court GPS tracker case, 5 of the justices held that prolonged location tracking violates people's reasonable expectation of privacy, and is a search under the Fourth Amendment. As networks of license plate readers grow more dense, such that they track our movements in granular detail, I think the same concerns that motivated the Justices to hold as they did in the GPS case could motivate them to conclude that tracking through license plate scanners also raises Fourth Amendment issues.

abigailfrillywho2 karma

If it's a 4th amendment violation, does that mean once the technology becomes widespread, the issue can be brought forth with SCOTUS? what else can we do to stop this from happening barring moving out into the middle of nowhere?

ACLUCatherine3 karma

Yes, that's right--but I think we are a long way away from that happening right now. Right now, the place to push back against the use of these license plate readers to build databases of all of our movements is with our local police departments and also state legislatures. In our report, my fellow AMAer Kade Crockford describes her experience working with a local community to pass sensible privacy protections for license plate readers--she scored a big win. If we have more activists on the ground doing things like this it would make a big difference. Check out p. 23 of the report http://www.aclu.org/files/assets/071613-aclu-alprreport-opt-v05.pdf

ACLUCatherine4 karma

Hi this is Catherine Crump, I'm a lawyer at the ACLU and one of the authors of the license plate reader report.

CalvinDehaze4 karma

This is an interesting topic. What you're basically saying is that police agencies shouldn't be tracking us based on our license plate, because they're mandatory. So what happens when face tracking becomes more efficient? Does the same argument apply? And is it illegal/unconstitutional for the police to follow you in pubic?

ACLUAllie5 karma

That's a great question, Calvin. I'm hoping one of my colleagues chimes in more. Police can follow you in public. There are remaining questions, though, about what technology they can use to follow you and for how long. There was an early location tracking case called Katz where law enforcement used beeper technology to follow someone on public roads. They had to stay within a certain range of the beeper in order for it to work. And, the court said that tracking was okay. But, the technology has changed since then, and now police can track your location (using ALPRs or cell phone location tracking or GPS tracking devices) from the comfort of their own desks (see www.aclu.org/tracked). And, recently in US v. Jones, a majority of the Justices in two concurrences (so it wasn't the majority opinion) said that they believed that any prolonged location tracking, regardless of mechanism, should be considered a search. (See: http://www.aclu.org/blog/technology-and-liberty/supreme-court-decision-gps-tracking-spur-action-congress.) As for facial recognition, check out my colleague, Jay Stanley's blog: http://www.aclu.org/blog/technology-and-liberty-criminal-law-reform-national-security-free-speech/some-thoughts-dmv

ACLUCatherine3 karma

Agreed that it's a good question. We need to find ways to draw lines between that tracking which is ok (police officers following someone on the street, or perhaps tailing them for some length of time) and technologically-enhanced surveillance that is far more invasive (like the 28 days of GPS tracking that the justices found crossed the line in Jones).

abigailfrillywho4 karma

what do you think is the most troubling thing about license plate readers?

ACLUKade9 karma

I think the most troubling thing about them is that they enable police, intelligence agencies and even private corporations to track our movements without warrants, as we drive throughout our towns, cities and states. This is part and parcel of a trend in the United States moving away from suspicion-based surveillance, into a brave new world of information hoarding, sans probable cause or reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

The government doesn't have any business keeping accurate records of our communications, movements or associations unless it has a good reason to believe we are involved in criminal activity, and shows that evidence to a judge. Unfortunately, as both our new license plate reader report and the NSA scandal show, that's not the case anymore.

Here in Massachusetts we are trying to fix one of those problems, by passing a law to regulate license plate reader use. Check it out: http://privacysos.org/lawreform

ACLUAllie4 karma

License plate readers collect and save information on everyone -- not just on people suspected of wrongdoing -- and local and federal law enforcement agencies are rapidly building systems for pooling captured license plate location information across jurisdictions and regions. One's location can reveal many things about her lives, such as what friends, doctors, protests, political events, or churches she may visit, so law enforcement shouldn't be saving and pooling this sensitive information about innocent people. And they don't need to. There’s no reason police can’t use ALPRs for legitimate law enforcement purposes while at the same time protecting privacy by deleting non-hit data rapidly.

nya214 karma

Hi ACLU experts. What exactly is the problem with license plate tracking? Isn't this the same as the E-ZPass system?

ACLUKade5 karma

It's not the same at all! E-ZPass isn't mandatory, so people who don't want to be monitored in that way don't have to participate. Additionally, those records are only collected when you enter and exit the highway, not along backroads or city streets, which is the kind of pervasive tracking that license plate readers enable. The real threat here is that, as these cameras proliferate throughout the country, our motoring movements will be monitored extensively, and the records kept for a long time, enabling retroactive, warrantless surveillance.

ACLUAllie7 karma

Thanks for the question, NYA. To build on Kade's answer, it's a basic tenet in our society that we don't watch innocent people just in case they do something wrong. But, license plate readers turn that principle on its head, collecting and pooling data on everyone.

bytester4 karma


BennettStein9 karma

Thanks for your question! The stored license plate reader data can be used to map out location points for every time a person's car was tracked. When law enforcement has information on where a person has been, it can tell a lot about someone. Law enforcement could also look up which cars were near a crime scene - or a political protest. Check out our page on this for more info -- aclu.org/plates.

ACLUAllie8 karma

Right. At the same time, ALPRs can be used for their primary law enforcement purposes without storing data on the rest of us for long periods of time -- ALPRs instantly identify vehicles that are stolen, involved in a crime, or associated with fugitives; they don't need to store data that isn't evidence of an offense.

ACLUKade7 karma

In New York, the NYPD is using the data to profile Muslims who worship at mosques. http://www.ap.org/Content/AP-In-The-News/2012/Newark-mayor-seeks-probe-of-NYPD-Muslim-spying

matrixifyme3 karma

No question. Just wanted to thank you guys for your efforts and for being exceptional human beings.

ACLUKade3 karma

Thanks so much. Very kind. Hope you can donate to help our work, if you don't already! https://www.aclu.org/donate/join-renew-give?ms=oth_ALPR_redditAMA

HitNRunSurvivor3 karma

I am one of literally tens of thousands of hit and run victims every year. Its an epidemic and it makes people fearful to use the roads. Drivers of vehicles enjoy the privilege of a state granted license to drive on roads paid for by everyone including those of us who dont drive.

Cyclists and pedestrians have a right to use public roads and are the most vulnerable to criminal drivers. We rarely have recourse to find the criminals who leave the scene of the crime. This plate tracking would help immensely. If you dont want to get tracked, get rid of your cellphone. This program can help protect me as a pedestrian and cyclist.

ACLUKade3 karma

Thanks for your question, and I'm so sorry to hear about what happened to you. We totally agree that license plate readers can be used to great effect to locate people whom police suspect have committed serious crimes like hit and runs. No argument there.

Our issue is with the mass, routine collection and storage of data on people against whom no crime has been alleged. Our report found that 99.9% of the data retained is about those of us who haven't done anything wrong, but are being profiled and tracked anyway. That's not acceptable in a democratic society.

And to your point about cell phone tracking, we are working on that, too! If police want to track our phones, they should get a warrant. http://www.aclu.org/blog/technology-and-liberty-national-security/aclu-challenges-67-days-warrantless-cell-phone

HitNRunSurvivor1 karma

You dont seem to comprehend the issue. Many people especially cyclists and pedestrians are often killed or maimed so badly or simply in shock and CAN NOT GET THE PLATE in the first place. With tracking cameras theoretically a plate can be traced to the scene of the crime. Right now cops are indifferent because they have no tools to capture plates after the fact.

ACLUKade4 karma

Our recommendations grant that law enforcement might want to hang on to data for a few days (or at most, a few weeks) for precisely these kinds of reasons.

If someone is hit by a car and it is reported to the police within hours or days, as it should be, this wouldn't be a problem.

Our objection, again, is to the mass collection of this data on a routine basis, and the storage of it for months, years or even indefinitely. That's not needed for public safety and it is a serious threat to our liberty and privacy.

quantumavs3 karma

Hi everyone, thanks for taking our questions!

It seems to me that an expansive, 'dragnet' ALPR program that doesn't require warrants would be very useful in stemming criminal activity. That said, I understand that unchecked use of surveillance devices like ALPRs can be abused (like if a police station starts harassing people whose presence it recorded at a political protest).

Given those comments, my questions are: should we reject the 'legal warrant-less' use of ALPRs wholesale? Why can't we just deal with abuse post hoc, if it happens?

BennettStein3 karma

Really great questions, thanks. No, we do not need to reject the use of license plate readers wholesale. With proper regulation, the civil liberties implications of license plate readers can be very limited. Unregulated license plate reader use poses a problem when law enforcement agencies collect location information from all drivers and store the information for a long period of time. If the license plate reader ran the license plate against a stolen vehicle list and deleted it shortly after, the privacy implications are much smaller. You can read more of our recommendations on page 32 and 33 of our report at http://www.aclu.org/files/assets/071613-aclu-alprreport-opt-v05.pdf.

ACLUAllie3 karma

Yes, thanks for the questions! To build on Bennett's answer -- it's possible that dragnet surveillance programs can help stem criminal activity. So would giving law enforcement the keys to all of our homes. It's really a matter of values. We believe that access to our homes would reveal intimate details about our lives, so we don't give law enforcement the keys. If (as the ACLU does) we also believe that one's location can reveal very intimate information about her -- what friends, doctors, lovers, etc. she visits; what she does in her spare time, etc. -- then law enforcement should not be pooling and looking at that information on people unless they are suspected of wrong doing.

ACLUAllie3 karma

As for dealing with abuse post-hoc, sadly, we are aware of a long history of abusive law enforcement practices, either at the hands of a few bad apples or institution-wide. We can look to COINTELPRO or to 2005 when a police helicopter supposedly monitoring a street protest in New York City instead trained its infrared camera for a prolonged period on a couple making love on a pitch-black rooftop patio. We know that abuse will occur, so why wait until it does to put protections in place? (For more on law enforcement spying on innocent people, check out www.aclu.org/spy-files.)

Roland193 karma

What are some things individuals can do to help fight back against civil liberty violations? I think everyone knows the call your congressman or get involved in a group route, but what are some little-known things we can do to protect our rights?

ACLUKade4 karma

Super psyched you asked. There actually is quite a bit we can do at the local level to push back against the creeping surveillance state, particularly concerning technologies like license plate readers.

There's information in our report about how we in Massachusetts organized at the local level to make sure that a department used the technology responsibly, without needlessly compiling dossiers on our travel patterns. You can read about that on page 23 here: http://www.aclu.org/files/assets/071613-aclu-alprreport-opt-v05.pdf

There's more information about how to push back at the local level here: http://www.privacysos.org/alpr

And here: http://www.privacysos.org/localpolice

Roland192 karma

This is great! Thank you guys, I'll definitely share

ACLUKade1 karma

Yeah, and if you want to do some local organizing and have any questions or want to chat, reach out: http://privacysos.org/contact

I'm happy to do what I can to help.

ginsburgrocks3 karma

Hi guys. This sounds pretty scary, but at the same time I can understand how excited police departments might be to have this technology (within reasonable means) as a law enforcement tool. Do you have any examples of departments that are doing the "right thing"/practical policies they can take to secure their data?

ACLUAllie5 karma

Yes. The Ohio State Highway Patrol requires that “[a]ll ‘non-hit’ APR [automatic plate reader] captures shall be deleted immediately. APR captures shall not be collected, stored, or shared with the intent of datamining.” And, the Minnesota State Patrol only keeps captured plate data for 48 hours. You can see more data retention periods in our license plate reader report on p. 20. http://www.aclu.org/files/assets/071613-aclu-alprreport-opt-v05.pdf

ACLUAllie5 karma

I also like Virginia's attorney general guidance, which says that license plate readers cannot be used for passive data collection – that is collecting and pooling the license plate information of every car that passes them by – and can only be used “actively” – that is in pursuit of particularly identified license plates “evaluated and determined to be relevant to criminal activity.”

ginsburgrocks3 karma

Remarkably sage for Cuccinelli. Thanks!

ACLUAllie3 karma

Happily, privacy transcends party lines. :-)

ACLUAllie3 karma

Hi all! I'm Allie Bohm. I'm an Advocacy & Policy Strategist at ACLU. I work with ACLU affiliates across the country to advance our state and local policy goals and will be using our ALPR report to push legislation and policy across the country.

catrinachaos2 karma

I live in Oakland, CA. Have you heard of the "Domain Awareness Center" the Port + City are trying to pass for $2 million? It tracks data from license plates to Twitter feeds (huh?) Tell me something good, because this sounds all bad to me in regards to privacy...as a person who lives here. http://cironline.org/reports/oakland-surveillance-center-progresses-amid-debate-privacy-data-collection-4978

ACLUKade3 karma

Thanks for your question. I read the story about that this morning, as well. It sounds a lot like the Microsoft-NYPD partnership on a Domain Awareness System in New York City -- and I agree, it's quite troubling. I think the key to stopping unaccountable surveillance at the local level is local accountability. It isn't easy, but it works. This requires organizing and sweat. But I think Northern California can manage it. Y'all did a great job pushing back against drone surveillance earlier this year. I think the same principles must be applied here. If the people don't want it, the police shouldn't do it, full stop. I would say more, but I don't think Oakland needs me to teach them how to organize. ;)

BubbiNos2 karma

Good AMA. Do you find that a lot of the public is non-chalant about this technology, and just don't care enough to take a stand? I am thinking of the people that are like 'who cares if they track me. I'm not doing anything bad. Its only criminals that should be worried'

I just feel that people just don't care enough. Sort of like with 300 milllion people to monitor, they aren't going to care about little old me.

Do you find that you are constantly having arguments like 'I don't have anything to hide, so I could care less if they keep information. If you are so against this, you must be involved in illegal activities.' ?

ACLUKade2 karma

Yes, this question comes up a lot. But it's clear that people actually do care about their privacy; it just depends on how you ask them. If you ask people: "Do you think the government should be able to search your home or read your email without a warrant?" 90 percent or more will say no.

The importance of issues like location tracking and metadata surveillance are a little harder to get across to some people, because these capabilities are relatively new. On the other hand, the government rifling through our personal letters or busting through our doors to turn over our beds are examples of government power gone wild that are pretty much seared into the hearts and souls of most people in this country.

The newer kinds of informational surveillance are troubling because they are largely secret, done with computers, not with agents trailing you in real life or rifling through your bags.

Finally, though, social change and political movements are usually pursued by relatively small groups of really dedicated, tireless organizers. And if you look around, there are plenty of people who are mighty ticked off about these problems. I have hope that, if we organize together smartly and tirelessly, we can make some progress. Cultural shifts take time. The post-9/11 one has been terrible, but I think that we can make another one, in the opposite direction.

After all, who is going to oppose more freedom?

LiberalViewer2 karma

How sophisticated is current software at creating profiles about people based on these data? Do you think we need limits on government development of that kind of software as well as limits on use/collection of data?

ACLUCatherine3 karma

It's a good question and we don't completely know the answer. The software makers advertise that police officers can enter plates into the system to plot on a map where those vehicles have driven in the past, and also can look up all cars that were in a particular geographic region at one time. We know that their ultimate goal is to be able to detect suspicious driving patterns and therefore to apprehend criminals before they do anything wrong.

ACLUKade3 karma

The software is incredibly advanced and only becoming more so. There are tons of examples of these tools here:

http://www.privacysos.org/node/966 and http://www.privacysos.org/search/node/data%20mining

I don't think it is practical, desirable, or likely even legal to try to stop people from developing technologies like this, but we certainly have the option of restricting government from using them in certain ways, and with particular data inputs.

The major issue here is the dumping of vast quantities of personal information into these systems, even when 99% of it is about people who haven't even been accused of a crime -- let alone convicted of one. The data systems are important, but the data inputs are just as, or more.

durandall082 karma

What would you say to people who would put forward the argument that this technology would have greatly reduced the number of victims in the DC sniper attacks? As someone who works in a field providing data to law enforcement, I've heard this argument more than once.

ACLUKade2 karma

Hey, thanks for your question.

It gets at the heart of what I think has been a misconception about the ACLU's argument with respect to license plate readers. We aren't saying that police cannot keep data related to criminal investigations or emergencies, like the DC sniper case. Clearly if people were getting shot at a gas station and the police captured plates in that area, that would be ok to hang onto.

Our objection is the routine, mass, suspicion-less collection of this data even when there is no crime or emergency. They are really quite different propositions.

zaikanekochan2 karma

This is sort of off-the-subject, but still privacy related. I just got a breathalyzer installed in my car (my bad), and due to other people giving breath samples, my state (the wonderfully not-corrupt-at-all State of Illinois) requires a camera that takes your picture while you submit your sample. Fine, whatever. But they mounted a webcam to my windshield that is constantly looking at me. I'm the guy who turns his Kinect to face the wall when I'm not using it. Is this the price I pay for being stupid, or is this concerning?

ACLUCatherine2 karma

Hey, thanks for the question. Unfortunately, it's not one I've thought much about and so I'm afraid I don't have helpful thoughts.

ginsburgrocks2 karma

One more question -- can you give a brief rundown on how these readers work? Where exactly are they? Are they visible? Is there any way to avoid them, for example, by taking different routes? Is there any way for me to find out from the police department if my license plate data has been collected?

BennettStein2 karma

The readers take a photograph of the license plate of a car and convert the license plate number into machine-readable text. It then checks the number against manually entered plate numbers and "hot lists" of plates that have been uploaded to the system. The system then provides an alert to the law enforcement agent if a match or hit appears. The system then stores the photograph, the license plate number, and the date/time/location where the automobile was photographed. The cameras can be fixed to objects like bridges or overpasses or they can be placed on a mobile vehicle or law enforcement agents on foot could even scan a plate with a smart phone app.

Tens of thousands of license plate readers are now deployed. In 2011, almost three quarters of police agencies reported in a survey to using license plate readers. It would be very hard to avoid being photographed. This is why we need sufficient restrictions on use in place!

BennettStein2 karma

Oh, and your last question! Different states have different laws governing your access to license plate data. Depending on where you live, you may be able to request your own license plate data. We recommend in our report (http://www.aclu.org/files/assets/071613-aclu-alprreport-opt-v05.pdf), on page 22, that, yes, people should be able to find out if plate data of vehicles registered to them are contained in a law enforcement database and that you should access to that data.

ACLUKade1 karma

Here's an example of a journalist who sought records about his car. http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2013/07/the-cops-are-tracking-my-car-and-yours/

pondertheworld2 karma

Haha, I'm giving a speech on the ACLU today in my public speaking class! This is so perfect. I emailed some of the staff at the Colorado ACLU but I haven't heard back from them yet, so... I have some questions I'd love answered that don't necessarily have anything to do with the focus of this AMA, if that's okay, haha.

To anyone: What is your personal mission at the ACLU? I see that the mission statement says: "Our mission is to protect, defend and extend the civil rights and civil liberties of all people in Colorado through litigation, education and advocacy." But I'm interested in maybe getting a more personal answer... I copy-pasted that quote from the Colorado ACLU website but I feel like it can be a blanket statement, hah.

Also, what is your personal vision for the future for your organization? It would be wonderful if you could just tell me one thing that you'd really like to see happen within the next five years, or even decade.

BennettStein3 karma

Good luck with your speech! I was a student ACLU activist before I started working here so I thank you for talking about us in your class.

I think the Project on Speech, Privacy and Technology (SPT) mission might be helpful for you - it's a bit more detailed:

The ACLU’s Project on Speech, Privacy, and Technology (SPT) is dedicated to protecting and expanding the First Amendment freedoms of expression, association, and inquiry; expanding the right to privacy and increasing the control that individuals have over their personal information; and ensuring that civil liberties are enhanced rather than compromised by new advances in science and technology. The project is currently working on a variety of issues, including political protest, freedom of expression online, privacy of electronic information, journalists’ rights, scientific freedom, and openness in the courts.

ACLUAllie2 karma

Yes, good luck with your speech! You can also find ACLU's mission here: http://www.aclu.org/about-aclu-0. Our 5 and 10 year goals really depend on where we sit in the organization, but you can find info our four top priority campaigns nationwide here: http://www.aclu.org/key-issues.

pondertheworld2 karma

You guys rock and I know you all are probably on a time crunch but I would really love to hear something a bit more personal. Like, what makes your blood boil the most? What gets you up in the morning?

Thanks for the links! :)

ACLUKade3 karma

Hey, well I can answer about what makes my blood boil! Unaccountable government power really gets me! It doesn't make sense to me that in a supposedly democratic society, police and intelligence officials get to make rules (in secret!) about how much power they should have. That's really what surveillance comes down to -- power. And conversations about state power are at the heart of both what the ACLU does and what makes a democratic, open society possible.

That's why I think the most important struggle before us is to reign in the surveillance state, which was built off of the unjust drug war and grew exponentially because of the war on terror. It's time to roll it back, in order to reconstitute a truly democratic, open society.

ohthreetwoeight2 karma

If I’m not doing anything wrong, why should I worry if police know where I have driven?

ACLUKade7 karma

Information is power. The government shouldn't be able to amass detailed profiles of our day to day lives, unless it has reason to believe we are involved in criminal activity. That kind of government omnipotence is simply incompatible with a free society.

If you take the "I have nothing to hide" logic to its conclusion, you could conceivably hand over a key to your home to each police officer and FBI agent. After all, if you have nothing to hide, who cares if they randomly pop into your bedroom to check up on you?

Location privacy isn't exactly the same as home searches, granted. But it is incredibly invasive.

Justice Douglas Ginsburg nicely explains why location privacy matters. Let me pass the mic to him:

"A person who knows all of another's travels can deduce whether he is a weekly churchgoer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups—and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts."

ACLUKade4 karma

I provide some examples of abuse here, too: http://www.privacysos.org/node/1019

BennettStein4 karma

We discuss other privacy risks and provide more examples in our report (http://www.aclu.org/files/assets/071613-aclu-alprreport-opt-v05.pdf) on pages 8 and 9. This includes the case of John Catt, a retiree and anti-war protester, who was pulled over by an anti-terror unit based on a license plate reader hit. The BBC reports that his license plate was put on a hot list after an anti-war protest (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/whos_watching_you/8064333.stm)

theThirdRichard2 karma

I rarely drive. Why should I be concerned?

ACLUKade3 karma

The issue is unaccountable, secret government power, and that affects you even if you don't drive.

Just like the NSA, local police departments are increasingly arguing that they have the right and responsibility to collect vast troves of highly sensitive information about millions of people suspected of no wrongdoing. Their argument is that they need to collect all the data they can 'just in case' they want to use it sometime down the road. That's unacceptable government practice, and it flies in the face of both the spirit of the fourth amendment and democracy. We are innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around.

The license plate reader databases are only one example of this alarming trend. We need to reverse it, and dealing with this issue helps get us there.

theThirdRichard1 karma

Thanks for the reply!

What if the data is collected but not examined by humans until a warrant is obtained? Does this then become an issue about potential abuses of power?

ACLUKade1 karma

Yes. Just like with the NSA metadata collection program, it is inappropriate for police to collect data first and then find an excuse or reason to look at it sometime later on.

The only way to truly prevent abuse of information like this is to delete it, or not to collect it at all. Anything less than that is unacceptable because it means that we have to simply trust that potentially thousands of people who have access to it will do the right thing. Given that we know police and intelligence agencies routinely spy on peaceful protesters, for example, that's not a very good idea.

notrance1 karma

Do those products that add a flash of light to blind license capturing cameras face being made illegal?

ACLUKade1 karma

Those kinds of laws vary state by state, but it seems certain that blocking police from reading your license plate isn't the solution to this problem. We need to organize and change the law.

MHC-II1 karma

Not related to license plate tracking, but...

George Zimmerman is facing a possible civil suit backed by the NAACP. Have you guys considered taking Zimmerman's defense if such a case were to arise?

ACLUAllie3 karma

We're the privacy people, so we have to defer to our racial justice colleagues on this one. They've been blogging about it here: https://www.aclu.org/blog/racial-justice/trusting-law-enforcement-after-trayvon-tragedy

BennettStein1 karma

Bye everyone! Thanks for your questions! Check out Kade's great new blog at http://www.aclu.org/blog/national-security-technology-and-liberty/state-secrecy-and-opaque-funding-programs-cloud. More license plate reader-related blogs on Free Future in the coming days, too.

r4v51 karma

Have things changed extensively since this On the Media piece in August 2012, or is the issue more of a combination of more deployment and the possibility of this going national?

ACLUAllie2 karma

I think the short answer is that there are more license plate readers out there, and the cost of the devices is falling. There are also more states that have passed legislation governing license plate reader use: Until 2012, only NH and ME had laws governing ALPR use. This year, AR, UT, and VT passed laws. And, Virginia's attorney general issued a great guidance on ALPRs in Feb. 2013. Check out our report for more details about what's happening on ALPRs nationwide: http://www.aclu.org/files/assets/071613-aclu-alprreport-opt-v05.pdf

BennettStein2 karma

In addition to the cost of the device falling, the cost of storing data collected from license plate readers is also dropping rapidly. Between 2000 and 2010, the inflation-adjusted cost to purchase one gigabyte of hard drive storage fell from about $10 to less than 10 cents. http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2011/12/14%20digital%20storage%20villasenor/1214_digital_storage_villasenor.pdf

ACLUKade1 karma

Hey everyone, thanks so much for joining us here. It was fun! Please don't hesitate to reach out if you want to get involved to do some local organizing to push back against the surveillance state in your area. http://privacysos.org/contact


GottheOrangeJuice1 karma

Hi and thank you for your work! A couple of questions:

  • It seems to me that part of the problem with 4th Amendment cases is that the federal laws governing technology-enhanced searches haven't been able to catch up to the advances being made in surveillance, and, by default, new technologies are allowed until legislators get around to updating the language. Do you see anyway for legislators to write a comprehensive law that addresses future, unknown technologies and do you think that a law like that would help?

  • (Unrelated to civil liberties) The law field is over-saturated right now. What would your advice be to someone who truly wants to become a lawyer in order to help people, but sees a job market with no possibilities?

  • Several cases through the ACLU's history have caused division within the ACLU, prompting members to leave. Are there any recent examples where the ACLU leadership took a case that you would not be comfortable supporting? Alternatively, do you know of any members who have left based on their principles?

ACLUAllie1 karma

Good questions! In terms of the first one, it's a huge problem! There are definitely ongoing efforts to craft legislation that will be technology neutral and relevant in the long run. For example, this legislative session, Montana and Maine passed legislation requiring law enforcement to get a probable cause warrant before tracking individuals' location. (See: http://www.aclu.org/blog/technology-and-liberty-national-security/first-nation-montana-requires-warrant-location.) Importantly, their bills defined location tracking in a way that was not technology-specific, so they cover cell phone location tracking, GPS tracking, social networking check-ins, and other forms of location tracking that hasn't been developed yet. There are certainly ways of crafting legislation to make it more evergreen. But, invariably new technology will be dreamed up that will require new and different laws. I think we're seeing that now as state legislatures grapple with what to do about domestic drones (see www.aclu.org/dronelaws). Hopefully, the drones model -- where legislatures are getting ahead of a technology that is in its infancy -- will happen again with other new technologies in the future.

ACLUAllie1 karma

For question 2, if you truly want to be a lawyer in order to help people, you should become a lawyer and work really hard to be the best lawyer you can be, and you'll find the job. If you really want to help people or create social change, it's worth noting that there are many ways to do that without being a lawyer. Plenty of policy wonks, lobbyists, and organizers (in the social change world) are not lawyers, and obviously, there are a host of fields where you can help people. My advice would be to figure out what you precisely you want to do and what you need to in order do it, and then don't let fear of job competition dissuade you. ;-)

ACLUAllie1 karma

It sounds like you're aware of some of the contentious cases in ACLU's past (and maybe present). Fortunately, our members tend to be with us on privacy and don't tend to leave over our work on these issues. :)

mako55-2 karma

y'all need to find something else to cause a commotion about. there are certain privacies we give up in exchange for our safety and i'm OK with this one. my question is, why does anyone care if the government knows where their car is/was? the FBI could put a GPS on my car and I would not care in the least. I would just feel bad for the dude who had to watch it.

ACLUAllie3 karma

I think abigailfrillywho put this well earlier in the conversation -- "going to protests is not illegal. going to my doctor is not illegal. going to get an abortion is not illegal. going to a GOP meeting is not illegal. these are, however, things i'd like to keep private. wouldn't you?" Check out p. 30 of our report (http://www.aclu.org/files/assets/071613-aclu-alprreport-opt-v05.pdf) for some examples of why, even if one has nothing to hide, she still might not want the government tracking her every move. You may know you're innocent, but you don't know what the government is looking for or what they might find suspicious -- and what consequences that may have for your life. (PS. check out www.aclu.org for all of the other issues we're currently causing a commotion about. ;-) )