Dubbing it “the most widespread location tracking technology you've probably never heard of,” the American Civil Liberties Union this week criticized the use of automatic license plate readers in hundreds of law enforcement agencies around the country.
In Nebraska and Iowa, though, use of the readers has been sparse.
The readers typically scan license plates to look for stolen cars, unregistered vehicles or the plates of wanted people. But the sheer volume of data is ripe for abuse, the ACLU says in its new report.
In the most egregious cases, police departments save the locations of all vehicles, regardless of whether the drivers ever did anything wrong. Departments keep the records for weeks or years, and sometimes indefinitely.
“There's just a fundamental question of whether we're going to live in a society where these dragnet surveillance systems become routine,” said Catherine Crump, a staff attorney with the ACLU.
The Iowa State Patrol has never used automatic license plate readers.
Omaha's police department purchased three and began using them in 2009.
Two were installed on police cruisers. One is broken, and there are no plans to repair it, a city attorney said. The third reader was put in a stationary location, where it was struck by lightning.
The Nebraska State Patrol used grant money to purchase two readers in 2008.
“Neither one is being used at this time because the software is outdated, and we have no plans to replace them,” said Deb Collins, a State Patrol spokeswoman.
The Lincoln Police Department purchased two license plate readers in 2009, when they were installed on cruisers. One unit is broken, and both have had their share of technical problems.
“Technology isn't something you just buy and it works perfectly and you never have to touch it again,” Lincoln Police Chief Jim Peschong said. “But when they're working, they're reading a lot of license plates, maintaining a database on what it captures.”
That kind of database, the ACLU argues, is precisely the problem.
The records can show every place a person has driven or parked. Over a period of time, the scanners can assemble a detailed picture of a person's actions.
That's why ACLU Nebraska Executive Director Becki Brenner said she'd like to see written policies about how the scanners can be used, and how often the records will be expunged.
“Let's put something in place that says how we're going to do it. … Let's think about civil rights,” she said.
With that in mind, the Lincoln Police Department recently created a policy to clear its license plate records after 45 days.
In doing so, though, it might have violated a state statute that establishes how long governments must keep their records. If a record isn't covered, agencies have to maintain those records in perpetuity.
The statute covering police departments was last updated in 1991, well before license plate readers were invented.
“It's not as easy as saying 'Well, we'd like to start purging,' ” said Laura Strimple, spokeswoman for the Nebraska Secretary of State. Lincoln police officials “technically are in violation,” she said.
Omaha keeps the records for good, Deputy City Attorney Tom Mumgaard said.
The city tries to follow the state's rules for keeping records even though it's not directly covered by the records retention policy. The city also keeps records only that match a license plate police were looking for — such as stolen cars.
Amy Miller, legal director for ACLU Nebraska, said the state should step in to clear up the confusion.
“The easy answer here is the Nebraska Legislature needs to act to include this in the existing (records retention) statute,” she said.