ACLU decries KS police database as ‘tool for mass surveillance’


BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING: Privacy advocates say Kansas law enforcement should purge data collected by Automatic License Plate Readers if a scan does not trigger an alert in a law enforcement database. Currently, law enforcement store data on innocent citizens’ movement for as long as five years.

By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog

OSAWATOMIE, Kan. — If you’ve ever driven through the Kansas community of Hutchinson in recent years, chances are your whereabouts were logged and locked inside a law enforcement database.

Maybe not your face, but rather your vehicle license plate, the time and your location — a snapshot of your movements — were potentially captured by one of two Automatic License Plate Readers employed by the Hutchinson Police Department.

ALPRs are the product of a collision between crime fighting and high-end technology. Utilized by the HPD since 2009, the patrol vehicle-mounted devices can instantly scan a license plate and compare it against any number of law enforcement databases. In mere seconds, officers can check for stolen vehicles, arrest warrants or other relevant information tied to the plate number.

While law enforcement officers say the devices are a valuable tool for combating crime in the modern age, privacy advocates are warning that police are compiling a database that could be misused and abused to track the movements of law abiding citizens.

Hutchinson Police Chief Dick Heitschmidt told Kansas Watchdog that on an average day, the ALPRs used by his officers will capture between 500 and 2,300 license plates. That figure is slightly higher for the Lenexa Police Department, said Maj. Dawn Layman, which scan as many as 7,000 in a 24-hour period.

In addition to two vehicle-mounted units, Lenexa has also phased-in two fixed-location ALPRs. Both Heitschmidt and Layman cite a laundry list of accomplishments made possible by the devices, ranging from recovered property and successful arrests to locating missing persons.

It sounds great, but here’s where it gets scary: all that information, the time and location tracking thousands of vehicles every day, is kept on file for years, whether or not the plate triggered a database alert.

In Hutchinson, Heitschmidt said all ALPRs data is stored at the city’s law enforcement center for two years before being purged. The timeline is even longer in Lenexa, where Layman said the LPD maintains active data for between 12 and 18 months, and archived data is kept for five years.

That fact doesn’t sit well with Holly Weatherford, advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas. While she supports police using the technology for legitimate reasons, Weatherford said she is troubled by the fact that citizen movements are kept on file for years without cause.

“Those narrow activities themselves, if done right, are a reasonable use of technology, because they are focused solely on people accused of wrongdoing,” Weatherford said. “But there’s no reason to store records of plates that are not ‘hits’ against any database.”

Heitschmidt said the HPD is considering decreasing the time a scanned plate is kept on file, but only because they’re running out of room to store the torrent of data supplied by ALPRs. Heitschmidt noted there’s no real need to keep data for that long, either.

When we asked if Heitschmidt harbored any concerns the information could be used to spy on the movement of citizens, he responded with a succinct “no.” He declined to elaborate on the comment.

Layman said the LPD restricts access to its license plate data.

“No employee may use or authorize the use of the equipment or database records in any situation that does not involve a legitimate law enforcement purpose,” she said.

While law enforcement agencies are telling the public to give them the benefit of the doubt, Weatherford is maintaining her skepticism.

“The main problem with ALPRs is that they are not being used only to search for suspects, but also to keep records on the whereabouts of everybody. They are increasingly becoming a tool for mass surveillance,” Weatherford said. “In our society, it is a core principal that the government does not invade people’s privacy and collect information about citizens’ innocent activities just in case they do something wrong.”

In July 2013, the ACLU released a nationwide study focusing on law enforcement use of ALPRs. Kansas-specific open records requests featured in the report are viewable here.

Related: Legislation would limit how long Oregon police can keep license plate data
Related: Safe keeping: VA State Police record license plates, keep massive database

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