PUBLIC EYES

No matter where you travel in the Commonwealth, there's a good chance you're being watched. According to the ACLU, more than 60 Massachusetts towns and cities use ALPR systems, with the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS) handing out about $500,000 toward the purchase of units in 2011 alone. But even with this continuing trend, the EOPSS has no policy about what info the devices may collect, where the data is stashed, or how long it can be kept. After much prodding from reporters, the BPD made its policy public in 2012: currently, the cops keep your plate info for 90 days. Still, they took more than a year to respond to a Phoenix inquiry regarding how many ALPR units they are currently using: in June, the BPD finally disclosed that they have 4 units in place that cost the city approximately $100,000.

In defense of ALPR deployment, the law-enforcement community cites anecdotes about them helping solve hit-and-runs and child abductions. Some even use hypotheticals, like detectives in Washington who claimed they would have found the 2002 "DC Snipers" sooner had they been equipped with license readers. But according to a 2010 study by researchers at George Mason University — what appears to be the broadest survey to date — "LPR patrols, even when used in ways that reflect the evidence, do not have a general or specific deterrent effect on crimes."

Last year ACLU chapters from across the country committed to unraveling the mystery of how ALPR is used and where the data goes. In July, their attorneys filed public records requests in 38 states and Washington, DC — as well as with the departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Transportation — to ascertain whether these authorities have "commonsense privacy protections" in place. The ACLU's main concern: they don't want information collected from the devices being stored for more than a few days at most, and they don't want it being shared in state and federal databases.

To control the government's data hoarding, in the 2013 Massachusetts legislative session, the ACLU is pushing a bill (officially, "An Act to Regulate the Use of Automatic License Plate Reader Systems") that would set official statewide parameters. The act would not prevent the use of ALPR; cops would still be able to enforce parking violations via license readers, and to compare "plates with RMV records of registration violations, state and federal criminal information about vehicles associated with outstanding criminal warrants, and missing person registries." But the bill would require police departments to maintain current hot lists of offenders while purging outdated targets (to prevent cops from harassing people for expired offenses). The law would also allow officers to obtain court orders to keep plate info for extended periods of time — but only if the vehicle is relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation. Such safeguards would prevent indiscriminate retroactive surveillance of everyday motorists.

"It's become apparent to me that we need to have more conversations on this issue," says Watertown Representative Jon Hecht, who is sponsoring the bill. "There's really a void as far as policy and regulation in this area, and it's taking off very quickly. . . . I expect to work closely with the law-enforcement community on this. They are using the technology more and more, and it has some valid uses. But just from conversations I've had, even people in law enforcement are looking for some guidance."

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