The latest Boston Phoenix is spread across your steering wheel. You're reading this article. In a legal parking spot. With the engine off. A transportation cop zaps your license plate with a computerized scanner, cycles your registration through the system, and records the time and position of your car.
This is not a conspiracy scenario born out of a bong session. In case you haven't noticed, the number of cars sporting rusty yellow boots has increased significantly lately. Authorities credit the boot boom to automated license-plate recognition (ALPR) systems, which enable authorities to scan more than 1000 plates per hour (compared to the roughly 100 plates per shift that humans can process manually). The system also pegs the date, time, and location of vehicles within range, and sounds the alarm whenever a plate raises red flags.
Right-to-privacy groups have voiced extreme concern, claiming that these systems are overly intrusive. But cops wholeheartedly embrace the new technology. Boston began using ALPR more than three years ago, as did about 26 other Mass municipalities. Last year, Newton spent more than $50,000 on ALPR tech; the Framingham police department recently purchased $65,000 worth of equipment. In total, about 40 towns and cities statewide now have these sophisticated scanners, which range in price from roughly $15,000 to $25,000 per installed unit. And right now, as you're reading this, the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS) is doling out about $300,000 toward the purchase of ALPR tech to police departments across Massachusetts.
In response, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is ramping up its protest.
"We're at the beginning of a long process," says John Reinstein, legal director of the ACLU Massachusetts office. "The laws have been running behind technology across the board, and since this is in its initial stages, we hope to be able to have some impact. . . . Everyone is always worried about FastLane, but there are restrictions on how that information can be used. With [ALPR] there are no restrictions, and it's much more specific, collecting everything from plate numbers to time and place."
ACLU attorneys are especially concerned since Massachusetts was granted federal funding for plate readers. ALPR opponents say that the number of departments using these devices has doubled in the past year. Yet the EOPSS — which reviews the grant applications and distributes the money — has refused to disclose details to the ACLU about how much information is collected, and where and how it will be stored. Under conditions of the grant, data obtained is indexed in the FBI's Criminal Justice Information System. Will that data be made public? Who can use it, and how? It's unclear. "We're still waiting on a response about policies and procedures," says Reinstein. "We asked these questions a month ago, and we still haven't gotten answers."
Despite mounting dissent, police across the state are embracing ALPR to track everything from stolen cars to fugitives. The merits of plate recognition were front and center last month at the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association's trade show, where the program featured a prominent ad for the "most advanced and accurate digital camera system on the market," capable of analyzing "thousands of plates an hour." The ACLU may be throwing up roadblocks, but privacy advocates are a long way from putting a boot on ALPR proliferation in the commonwealth.
"[ALPR systems] aren't controversial as far as we're concerned," Terrel Harris, EOPSS communications director, tells the Phoenix. "There's no controversy over them at all — in fact, we were just awarded grants to get more of them. The way we see it, they're just another tool to help law enforcement do their job."