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Politics & Government

ACLU Requesting Information On Automatic License Plate Readers

15 police departments, including Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and the state police have received requests from the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania (ACLU) for information regarding how police use automatic license plate readers (ALPR) to track and record the movements of drivers. ACLU affiliates in 34 other states have also requested information as part of a coordinated, nationwide effort.

ALPRs are small cameras mounted on either police patrol cars or stationary roadside objects which take pictures of every license plate that enters their field of view. Each photo is then time-, date-, and GPS-stamped, and stored in a database. The number of local police departments using ALPRs is increasing rapidly, according to the ACLU.

Sara Rose, staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said the lack of guidelines among users of the technology needs to be addressed.

"Certainly law enforcement agencies can use this to, you know, look for stolen vehicles or expired registration or other legitimate purposes, but in terms of capturing the data on law-abiding citizens, there should be some regulations in place that limit how long the data is kept and how it can be used," Rose said.

The requests made under Pennsylvania's Right to Know law are looking for answers on how long the data collected from ALPRs is stored, who has access to it, and whether local police departments pool the information in state, regional, or national databases.

Rose said the ACLU has already received some responses from police departments, but not necessarily with the kind of information they were seeking.

"We based our requests on news articles on law enforcement agencies and other agencies that have adopted this technology, and so some of the police departments have gotten back to us and said, 'We don't use this technology,'" Rose said. "Those are the only responses we've gotten so far, are departments that say, 'We don't actually use these.'"

The ACLU has submitted requests for information to the following police departments in Pennsylvania, which are believed to be using ALPRs:

  • Pittsburgh
  • Philadelphia
  • Peters Township
  • North Strabane Township
  • South Strabane Township
  • Cecil Township
  • Canonsburg
  • Monaca
  • Baldwin Borough
  • Baldwin Township
  • Mount Lebanon
  • Wilkes-Barre
  • Edgewood
  • Swissvale
  • Homestead
  • Washington County Sheriff's Office
  • The Parking Authorities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia

Requests were also sent to the Port of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania Auto Theft Prevention Authority. Both have provided funding to local law enforcement agencies for the purchase of ALPRs.