Privacy SOS

Special covert setting enables high-level officers to hide license plate tracking from beat cops

Police departments and agencies representing the cops have a habit of saying that they don’t need any more meddling laws to interfere with their surveillance powers. Just a few months ago, we had an opportunity to share with the Transportation Committee in Massachusetts information about why we desperately need a statute to protect drivers from unwarranted government tracking using license plate readers.

Representatives from the law enforcement world also came to the hearing on the License Plate Privacy Act, where they told legislators that it would be a very bad idea for them to pass our bill out of committee. The police can regulate themselves, thank you very much, the story went. Just trust them.

Police told the Boston Globe a very similar thing last year when the paper did a big front page story on plate readers. 

Sergeant Griffin, whose own department has no written policy, agrees that there should be rules to prevent abuse, but thinks that these should be set by local departments rather than at the State House. He said that rather than restrict use of the scanners, the Legislature should "trust law enforcement to do the right thing."

Should we trust the government to do the right thing, absent any evidence they actually will, and in the face of evidence that they won’t? Police officers are human, after all. For that reason, giving them incredibly powerful access to the private information of millions of people absent any laws to protect the public's privacy seems like a terrible idea.

It's an especially terrible idea when certain license plate reader corporations offer sneaky little products like this one to police departments and intelligence agencies:

Covert Hotlists. Ensure the discretion of an ongoing investigation or a special operation with a covert hotlists. When there is a hit, only the officer at the police department using the AutoVu system within the Security Center will be alerted. The invehicle officer will not be alerted.

Surveillance so secret that it is even kept from cops on the beat? Sounds totally legit. Can’t imagine how that particular power would ever be abused by someone in a position to wield undue influence. 

We need laws to protect our privacy amidst rapidly advancing technological development. Promises aren’t going to cut it. If you agree, and live in Massachusetts, take action now: Demand a warrant for location tracking.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.