How Are Cops Collecting, Sharing Travel Patterns?

By Lisa M. Schaffer, Esq. on January 11, 2019 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Big brother is watching you more than you think. And not only watching, but sharing that information with others. Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs) are the main mechanism behind the collection of travel data. These readers are mounted on cop cars as well as stationary devices, like street signs and lamp posts. They read license plates and send the data to storage centers, where they are processed and sorted. This data is then used to find cars involved in Amber Alerts as well as other criminally related activity.

So, ALPR can be used in fantastic ways. But what if the data captured was inaccurate and there are resulting erroneous negative consequences? Or what if the information is over-shared, violating one's constitutional rights to privacy? These issues concern the masses in discussions about ALPR.

Who Collects Data?

According to a recent study, around 200 law enforcement agencies from 23 states, plus the federal government, gather ALPR data. Though 27 agencies refused to discuss their data, it appears that around 2.5 billion scans were done in 2016 and 2017. Law enforcement agencies share the information they collect from their ALPR devices with about 160 other agencies. That should give you a good idea of the breadth of the data being collected. But what about the depth? That is open to interpretation, or perhaps the logarithms used by those that have the data. For instance, with this data, one could track your patterns, know your preferences, and even gather incriminating evidence that can, and will, be used against you later, and potentially not in a court of law.

How Long Is the Data Retained?

ALPR is used across the country and collects data on everybody, therefore making the data collection process constitutional. But what about the retention and use of that data? At least sixteen states have laws regarding retention, but they vary widely.

For instance, New Hampshire law limits the retention to three minutes, so long as the data isn't needed for criminal or protective custody or missing person situations; its law also does not allow the data to be transmitted anywhere outside of law enforcement. But Georgia allows the data to be kept for 30 months unless the data is being used for a toll violation or for law enforcement purposes, which is a much broader purpose than New Hampshire's law.

Umm ... That Feels Like Over-Sharing

If sharing is caring, then it appears police officers have a lot of love in their hearts. Most law enforcement agencies upload their ALPR data into an LPR cloud, offered by surveillance vendor, Vigilant Solutions. According to Vigilant Solutions marketing material, "Joining the largest law enforcement LPR sharing network is as easy as adding a friend on your favorite social media platform." If that alarms you, it should! Data is shared with a variety of other groups that can take that data and run with it, not only other police departments, but also Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Patrol.

If you feel that your private information is being used against you in a criminal proceeding, contact a local criminal defense attorney. You may find that the jurisdiction is using information outlawed by state statute or other local laws.

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