Privacy SOS

Minnesota police chief warns against regulating license plate readers, because ISIS

A Minnesota police chief has not-so-subtly warned state legislators that stopping police from warrantlessly tracking the movements of every motorist could play into ISIS' hands.

At a hearing on proposed state legislation that would limit the amount of time police can keep license plate tracking data on people suspected of no crime, Bloomington (population 86,000) police chief Jeff Potts told lawmakers,

"We can’t go a day without reading about ISIS or Al-Shabaab or Al-Nusra and their threats against the West. [License plate recognition] is used in counterterrorism, both in prevention and the investigation of those cases."

Just the other day, I pleaded with journalists to demand empirical evidence from police when they make outrageous claims like this one. The truth is, no law enforcement agency in the country has made public any information that shows license plate readers have been useful in preventing one single terrorist attack—in the history of the world. The police chief's claims are nothing more than fear mongering hysteria aimed at protecting likely unconstitutional surveillance powers from legislative branch scrutiny and regulation.

Thankfully, members of the legislature in Minnesota saw right through Potts' hysterics. State Rep Peggy Scott replied, "If we put a camera on every corner in the city, we’d probably cut down on a lot of crime and catch a lot of terrorists. What price are we willing to pay, in a free society, to have that kind of so-called security?"

So-called indeed. But Rep Scott, while she's on the right track, isn't correct to assume that putting cameras everywhere would catch terrorists.

Instead of tracking ISIS as terrorists drive around Bloomington plotting mythical terrorist attacks, the police in Minnesota will use license plate readers to track ordinary people as they go about their lives, just as police nationwide use other surveillance technologies at their disposal. And if a prior state audit is any indication, over half of Minnesota police will misuse their access to the sensitive information collected by plate readers, searching the location histories of people accused of no crime for personal purposes or simply out of curiosity. Just like with other police surveillance tools, the license plate data will be used to wage the racist war on drugs. If history is any indication, the data will be used for these less than glorious purposes, but not to stop terrorist attacks.

That's because terrorist attacks in the United States are exceedingly rare, while drugs and racially biased policing are exceedingly commonplace. But as Chief Potts shows, these troubling facts won't stop police from trying to use fear of terrorism to justify budgets, surveillance technologies, and unconstitutional spying. I'm glad to see some legislators aren't buying it.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.