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The ACLU Calls for a Moratorium on Blanket Recording of ALPR Footage

by Kevin W. Bliss

The American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) has published an appeal to the general public asking for organized opposition to the encroaching blanket surveillance company, Flock Safety. Concerns continue to be expressed regarding the company’s desire to catalog the movement of every citizen, and make that data available not only on a nationwide scale but worldwide.

Flock Safety is the nation’s first comprehensive mass surveillance data storage company. It installs unregulated automatic license plate recognition (“ALPR”) software driven cameras around a contracted city and captures images of every vehicle passing the area for storage. That database can then be searched any time in the future by law enforcement agencies who have secured the company’s services. This includes foreign law enforcement agencies.

Captured plates are automatically run against watch lists at the local, state, and national levels as well as the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (“NCIC”), AMBER alerts, and traffic violations. Homeowners, business owners, and others with access to independent camera footage can add their files to the already expansive database. In return, owners can create their own hit lists that will generate a cellphone alarm when the target vehicle enters their neighborhood. Already, over 2,000 cities in 42 states across America participate in this program.

Information is being gathered for no other reason than the collection of the information itself in what the ACLU is calling an “Orwellian scope.” Moreover, other companies such as Motorola Solutions are entering the market with their own versions of the nationwide database.

The ACLU released this plea on February 13, 2023, urging everyone to oppose this invasion of privacy. It stated the mass recording violates citizens’ civil liberties. The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says citizens shall be free from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. Retention of information in pursuit of a crime is permissible. Retention of the same data for the possibility of investigating some future crime is not, especially when law enforcement has unfettered access to that data.

The ACLU recommended people contact their local councilpersons or elected representatives to demand that they block any proposed agreements with Flock Safety or any other company attempting to mass record data. If unable to prevent companies from recording all traffic captured into a nationwide database, at least regulate the time of retention of this information. Prohibit recording data except in pursuit of a crime, or allow for its retention to be for three minutes or less, argues the ACLU.

The ACLU said it is imperative this issue be fought for protection of citizens’ right to privacy. It encouraged the public to raise the issue in newspapers’ op-ed sections, attend public meetings addressing adoption of these databases, highlight the issue on social media, and engage directly with the local police department.

The important thing is to speak out against it. Some communities’ police departments are sympathetic to the opposition of the acquisition of nationwide databases of this scope. But the majority of law enforcement agencies encourage contractual agreements with these companies.

Critics are concerned that ALPR systems will perpetuate the inherent problems already persistent with respect to the NCIC. The federal crime database has been criticized for its failure to comply with the 1974 United States Privacy Act’s basic accuracy, reliability, and completeness requirements. Running Flock Safety’s footage against the NCIC will result in a higher rate of unlawful arrests and detention.

“We don’t find every use of ALPRs objectionable,” the ACLU wrote. “[P]rovided they are deployed and used fairly and subject to proper checks and balances, such as ensuring devices are not disproportionately deployed in low-income communities of color, and that the hit lists they are run against are legitimate and up to date.”

Collected data available to any for the right price could be used to enforce anti-abortion or anti-immigration laws for alternate jurisdictions, allow foreign powers to track political dissidents, or discourage freedom of expression in the form of political gatherings. The ACLU said the risks are not worth allowing captured data to be arbitrarily recorded, retained forever, and provided to law enforcement without a warrant.

Law enforcement has already shown itself to have repeatedly abused and breached the public’s trust. The ACLU urged everyone to oppose nationwide databases. If not completely, it gave three recommendations the public should follow: (1) restrict data retention to under three minutes for non-criminal hits, (2) restrict data access to local users only, and (3) ensure the accuracy, reliability, and completeness of the database.




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