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ACLU files suit for information on automatic license plate readers

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Massachusetts (ACLUM) [advocacy websites] on Tuesday filed suit [complaint, PDF; press release] to obtain records and information regarding the use of automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) by federal law enforcement and agencies. The suit was filed in the US District Court of Massachusetts against the US Departments of Justice and Homeland Security [official websites] after the federal agencies refused to comply with a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the ALCU [JURIST report] in July. ALPRs are cameras mounted near roads and highways that photograph and record license plate numbers. The numbers are electronically interpreted so that police can be alerted when a license plate of interest is seen. The ACLU is seeking information about the length of time ALPR data is kept, with whom it is shared and the security of the records. They also seek information on any privacy polcies to protect drivers. An ALCUM staff attorney said, "If the government knows where you shop, where you worship, who you visit, and where you go to the doctor, it can put together a picture of your entire life. Police shouldn't track everybody. They should only track people they suspect of committing crimes."

Technological advancements allowing the tracking and storage of mass amounts of information have sparked legal controversy in recent years. The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [JURIST report] in January that the government's attachment of a global positioning system (GPS) device to a vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle's movements, constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment [text]. Last August the ACLU announced that their affiliates were sending approximately 375 requests for information in 31 states to reveal how law enforcement uses location data tracking on cell phones [JURIST report]. Smartphones now come with built-in global positioning systems (GPS), allowing users' movements to be tracked by law enforcement agencies, sometimes prior to having the phone in custody. In January 2011 the Supreme Court of California ruled that law enforcement officers can legally search text messages [JURIST report] on a suspect's cell phone without a warrant incident to a lawful custodial arrest. The California decision represents a split from the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit 2010 ruling and a 2009 decision [JURST reports] by the Ohio Supreme Court holding that police must obtain a warrant before searching data stored on a cell phone.

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