While Americans debate federal surveillance of private communications, law enforcement agencies across the nation, including in Nebraska, are scanning people’s license plates. And that scanning raises questions about technology, privacy, and the law.
A driver sits in a car just off 9th Street in downtown Lincoln, near police headquarters. A police car cruises past. It doesn’t look like the officer paid any attention to the car. But if his cruiser is equipped with an automatic license plate reader, or ALPR, that appearance could be deceiving.
Lincoln Police Chief Jim Peshong described how an automatic license plate reader works for an officer. “As you’re driving down the street, it’s capturing, reading license plates on vehicles that you meet, vehicles that are coming up behind you, vehicles on side streets and things like this,” Peshong said. “As you cross a street and someone’s stopped at a stop sign, it would wind up reading that license plate to see whether or not we had it in the database.”
Lincoln’s ALPRs scan people’s plates with four cameras mounted just below the lightbar on top of the police car. Then, the numbers are checked against a database that shows things like whether the license plates are expired, whether the vehicle is on a tow list, whether it’s stolen or been used in a crime. If so, the officer gets an alert. Meanwhile, information on all the license plates read, including where and when they were captured, is stored in a server.
Becki Brenner, executive director of ACLU-Nebraska, doesn’t object to using automatic license plate readers to catch criminals. “This gives the officers in law enforcement a tool to be able to track someone’s vehicle,” she said. “When they do get a hit they’re able then to stop someone who has abducted a child, or …robbed a convenience store because you’ve got his license plate number. So these are appropriate uses for this tool.”
But Brenner also said the technology can be abused. “What we don’t like and what we’re concerned about is the use of the tool to track someone’s movements that are not involved in a crime,” she explained.
The ACLU recently released a report entitled “You Are Being Tracked,” about law enforcement agencies’ use of automatic license plate readers across the country. In Nebraska, the Lincoln police have two readers, Omaha has three, and the Nebraska State Patrol has two, which it said it has used around Omaha and North Platte. A State Patrol report said one of the devices was “used during a gang funeral and worked very well at capturing the desired data.”
Brenner said she doesn’t object to plates being scanned if it helps police catch someone who’s committed a crime. “That’s good. And then what do you do with the other people whose license plates you scanned? Do you keep it? Or do you delete it? That’s the issue,” she said.
The ACLU wants law enforcement agencies to adopt written policies that require deleting that information after a few days or weeks. Omaha police have no such policy. Lt. Darci Tierney, a spokeswoman for the Omaha Police Department, said “It’s pretty much a moot point since we’re discontinuing our use of that technology.”
Tierney said none of Omaha’s three readers are currently working, and the Department has no plans to upgrade them.
The story is similar at the Nebraska State Patrol. The Patrol bought two readers, costing about $20,000 each, using federal grant funds in 2008. It used them mostly to look for stolen vehicles or wanted persons, using a national database.
The Patrol said it purged the license plate data it collected daily, a practice ACLU’s Brenner said is good, but should be a formal, written policy. But like the Omaha Police, the State Patrol is no longer using the readers, said Major Russ Stanczyk.
“We found that although the capabilities of the license plate readers are great, that they seem to be high maintenance and would break down frequently, both in the hardware and the software,” Stanczyk said.
In Lincoln, which purchased its ALPRs from a different manufacturer, one of the two units is down right now for a software upgrade.
Lincoln does have a written policy that says data not being used as evidence or criminal intelligence will be retained for no longer than 45 days. But that could run afoul of Nebraska’s Records Retention Act, which requires records not listed in the law be kept indefinitely. Secretary of State John Gale said the state has final approval over the length of time local governments retain records.
Lincoln city officials said it’s not clear whether license plate information is a “record” in the legal sense, and they’re working on coming up with a records retention schedule that keeps up with changing technology.
Despite technical and legal challenges, Lincoln Police Chief Jim Peshong said he would like to get more automatic license plate readers. Major Russ Stanczyk said the Nebraska State Patro is open to getting more once the technology improves. And Lt. Darci Tierney said the Omaha police will continue to evaluate it to figure out how to move forward.
Peshong suggested fears automatic license plate readers will keep track of innocent people’s movements and diminish privacy are exaggerated. “I might have a police car that records your license plate number as you’re going north on 10th Street and a police cruiser is going north on 10th Street,” he said, but adds “my automatic license plate reader may not ever encounter your vehicle for another month, or may never ever encounter it again. And so, I don’t have any idea where you’re going.”
The ACLU’s Brenner said Nebraska has very good law enforcement agencies, and she does not think the automatic license plate scanners are being abused in the state. But Brenner has little patience for the argument made by some people that if you don’t have anything to hide, you shouldn’t worry about government gathering data on you.
“Everybody who says that ‘Well, I don’t care if my phone numbers are being looked at. I don’t care if my Facebook is being reviewed by the government. I’m not doing anything wrong’ -- what happens is, it’s a Pandora’s box. It opens up the door for anybody to have access to anything. So I think we as citizens need to be cognizant of what information is being collected and why,” Brenner said.
What people think about their information being collected may well affect the balance between law enforcement needs, on the one hand, and privacy concerns on the other.