Virginia State Police Used License Plate Readers At Political Rallies, Built Huge Database
From 2010 until last spring, the Virginia State Police (VSP) maintained a massive database of license plates that allowed them to pinpoint the locations of millions of cars on particular dates and times. Even more disturbing, the agency used automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) to collect information about political activities of law-abiding people. The VSP recorded the license plates of vehicles attending President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, as well as campaign rallies for Obama and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. (Documentation of this program, disclosed in response to an ACLU of Virginia public records request, can be found here.) These practices starkly illustrate the need for tight controls on government use of technology for surveillance purposes.
To be sure, there are legitimate law enforcement purposes for ALPR. Some law enforcement agencies maintain “hot lists” of vehicles that are stolen or that have been used in crimes. Data from ALPRs can be instantaneously checked against these lists to quickly locate suspect vehicles. The impact on privacy rights is minimal as long as information about license plates not on the hot list is disposed of promptly.
But by creating and maintaining a database of millions of license plates and targeting political activity, the VSP crossed well over the line from legitimate law enforcement to oppressive surveillance. In the cases of the campaign rallies and the 2009 inauguration, the VSP collected personally identifying information on drivers solely because those drivers were heading to a political event. These drivers were not suspected of or connected to any crime — their only offense was practicing their First Amendment rights to speak freely and assemble peacefully.
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