Privacy SOS

Police say “trust us,” but we need privacy protections enshrined into law

Today’s front-page Boston Globe expose on license plate readers in Massachusetts sounds the alarm on a problem the ACLU of Massachusetts — and the national ACLU — flagged as a potential privacy disaster back in 2010:

Absent commonsense privacy protections enshrined in law, license plate readers enable the government to retroactively track the movements of every single motorist in the state and nation — all without suspicion of wrongdoing or warrants. 

According to the Globe, "seven Boston-area police departments will add a combined 21 new license readers during the next month alone." And that’s just the Boston metropolitan region. License plate readers are likewise spreading like wildfire state- and nationwide.

Alarmingly, a police officer interviewed for today's Globe story told the newspaper that we don’t need a law to protect the public from license plate reader-enabled, unwarranted government spying. 

Chelsea officer Sergeant Robert Griffin, whose department reportedly does not even maintain a license plate reader policy, told the paper that we should simply "trust law enforcement to do the right thing" with the powerful technology.

But that’s not how we do things in the United States. We are a nation of laws. In order to protect our privacy from the threats posed by new surveillance technologies like license plate readers, we need to impose clear, legally enforceable limits on the police.

After all, we live in a democracy, and the police are public servants. If the public in Massachusetts wants to prevent government officials from tracking our movements as we drive through the state, we should and we will.

The police would no doubt benefit from absolutely no restriction on their power. Officers would have a much easier time solving crimes if they didn’t need warrants to search our homes. But that would be unacceptable. We have historically required that police provide evidence to a judge before officers violate our personal privacy, and technological developments should not change that basic framework.

And this is not a theoretical problem: institutionalized license plate reader privacy violations are a real and growing threat here in Massachusetts.

Since 2010, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security has maintained that it intends to create a statewide database for all license plate reader data. The end game appears to be a networked system that would enable the government to enter your license plate into a computer and in return receive a map showing everywhere you’ve driven statewide over a period of months, years or even decades. 

We don’t know how long that time period would be, however, or whether that data would be accessible to outside agencies like the FBI or DHS, because the state has not released its data policy or any other information about the planned database.

Who cares if the government tracks you?

Government tracking of our every move is not an academic issue. Not only does warrantless, mass surveillance run afoul of the most basic American principles of justice — “innocent until proven guilty” — but it presents incredibly powerful opportunities for government abuse. 

The Globe identified a number of cases in which license plate readers in particular were used to violate people’s rights:

■ In 2004, police tracked Canadian reporter Kerry Diotte via automated license scans after he wrote articles critical of the local traffic division. A senior officer admitted to inappropriately searching for the reporter’s vehicle in a license scan database in an attempt to catch Diotte driving drunk.

■ Plainclothes NYPD officers used readers to scan license plates of worshipers at a mosque in 2006 and 2007, the Associated Press reported, under a program that was partially funded by a federal drug enforcement grant.

It isn’t hard to see how these abuses apply to gun owners, women seeking abortions or contraception, gay and lesbian youth, or people seeking treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, among many other groups of law-abiding people.

As Justice Douglas Ginsburg wrote,

A person who knows all of another's travels can deduce whether he is a weekly churchgoer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups—and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.

Today’s Globe story on license plate readers, like the results from the ACLU’s nationwide public records request project, makes it crystal clear that we ordinary people must act now to protect our motoring privacy from Big Brother.

The police say we should simply “trust” them with intimate details about our lives, but that’s not how justice works in this country. The Fourth Amendment exists for good reason, and we need to bring it into the 21st century.

If you want to make sure the government does not know where you were last summer, please contact your state legislators and tell them to support the License Plate Privacy Act

We live in a democracy, and so we — not the police — get to decide when and how it is appropriate for the government to track our behavior and our habits. Raise your voice for privacy right now, and make Massachusetts an example for the nation.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.