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Local police departments react to ACLU license plate scanner report

Updated: Tuesday, August 27 2013, 10:31 AM EDT

Rochester, N.Y. – For the past five years, Officer Gil Contreras of the Rochester Police Department’s Traffic Enforcement Unit has used a license plate reader.

The scanner mounts on top of his car and the device is able to detect the reflective material in license plates. The scanner is able to read any plates that are in its path and cross references the plate number with DMV records.

Contreras says it’s a useful tool he uses to find drivers with suspended licenses, arrest warrants or cars that have been stolen.

“It's a very useful tool because if you don't stop the violator for something and determine that something is wrong, the plate reader will do it for you and it gives you probable cause to stop the car,” Contreras explained.

However, the license plate reader technology has recently come under the scrutiny of the American Civil Liberties Union.

On Wednesday, the group released a report titled “You Are Being Tracked” saying that the data collected from the license plate scanners are being stored for months, or in some cases years.

The information pertains to the location and the time of when a particular license plate is being scanned.

“This is just another example of big brother creep,” says Scott Forsythe of the ACLU. “You have government collecting information using the latest gadgets to get more and more information about us in our personal lives.”

Forsythe says that the ACLU is not calling for police departments to stop using this technology, rather to change policies to put limitations on the collection and retention of the data.

The Greece Police Department has five of the readers and department spokesperson Captain Patrick Phelan says that they are only used to find stolen vehicles, drivers with suspended licenses or people with arrest warrants out for them.

He says their readers store the data on the scanned license plates for 30 days.

“Our data is only stored for 30 days on the device itself and then it writes over itself so it's stored for a short period of time,” Phelan explained. “Frankly, we don't have the manpower or time to see where anyone is or what they are doing.”

Phelan said that in extreme cases, like a homicide investigation, police may go back and see which vehicles they scanned in the area of the crime. However, he said his department has not had to utilize the license plate readers in this way.

Forsythe believes this could potentially be an invasion of privacies and policies should be in place to prevent it so people do not have access to the data after it’s scanned.

“If it's not needed now, there is greater risk of misuse that it will be given to someone else who will have a perverse interest in the material,” Forsythe explained. “So let's err in the side of privacy instead of a future benefit that may never be realized that information.

The Rochester Police Department says they only use the license plate readers for traffic violations, arrest warrants or stolen vehicles. They keep their data stored for 90 days before it is completely erased.

Angela Hong, 13WHAM-TV
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Local police departments react to ACLU license plate scanner report


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