From The Charlotte Observer, July 30, 2012
The American Civil Liberties Union in North Carolina has joined 37 other states in requesting information from law enforcement agencies on how they use automatic license plate readers to track and record people’s movements.
The ACLU in North Carolina said it made the request of 61 agencies, including the Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Huntersville police departments, and 10 other law enforcement agencies in the Charlotte region.
In addition, the national ACLU and its Massachusetts affiliate filed Freedom of Information Act requests to learn how the federal government funds the license plate reader expansion nationwide. The ACLU also asked the government how it uses the technology.
The automatic license plate readers are cameras, mounted on telephone poles and bridge supports, that snap a photo of every license plate that enters their field of view. In most cases, the photo includes a time and date, and the photos are added to a data base.
That information then provides a match for police officers who might be looking for specific license plate numbers.
In addition to CMPD and Huntersville police, the ACLU is also asking for the information from the Gastonia and Hickory police departments, and from sheriff’s offices in Anson, Avery, Burke, Caldwell, Catawba, Gaston, Stanly and Union counties.
Catherine Crump, an attorney with the national ACLU organization, says the question is how government agencies are using that information.
“The American people have a right to know whether our police departments are using these tools in a limited and responsible manner, or whether they are keeping records of our movements for months or years, for no good reason,” Crump said.
“The ability to track and record people’s movements presents a clear risk to privacy rights,” added Chris Brook, legal director of the ACLU North Carolina Legal Foundation. “Without proper safeguards, this technology could all too easily lead to profiling, or the routine tracking of innocent people who have done nothing wrong.”
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officials told city council in May that they are installing about three dozen of the cameras at intersections, using a $1 million federal grant.
CMPD officials say the cameras are being used for public safety purposes, not to compile information about people’s habits. CMPD says the data is useful, for example, in finding stolen vehicles.
According to CMPD’s standard operating procedures for the license plate readers, the information gathered by the cameras is kept for 18 months and then purged automatically.