Automatic license plate readers beg privacy questions

Automatic license plate readers beg privacy questions

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PHOENIX -

Automatic license plate readers. They're not new to valley police departments. But the ACLU is taking up a new issue with them, concerned they're reading and recording too much personal data -- personal information that belongs to private law abiding citizens, not just criminals.

"I would try to figure out which car it is."

This MCSO detective's face is obscured to protect his identity. He works auto theft detail and spends the majority of his 12 hour shifts patrolling the streets for stolen vehicles.

"Every day at 7 and at 3 we get a hot list that we update the system."

His weapon of choice an ALPR, short for automatic license plate reader.

The tool, although not new, is recently raising concerns at the American Civil Liberties Union.

"The concern is that these are very powerful devices," said Alessandra Soler.

Executive Director of the Phoenix chapter, Alessandra Soler points out that these little-noticed surveillance cameras track the movements of every passing driver and parked car, and photograph thousands of plates per minute.

"Last year what the ACLU did was we filed a series of records requests across the country including here in Arizona."

The results of that request, a 26,000 page document. The data made available to FOX 10 indicate the Chandler Police Department has 7 ALPR units. There were over 362,000 records in its database.

Records are stored for 5 years.

Phoenix had 4 units and 2 million records in its database, stored for 7 years.

"These agencies are collecting massive and massive amounts of information about where we are going."

"We have been doing this manually for years," said Phoenix Police Sgt. Steve Martos.

Martos says the data picked up by the ALPRs (the department now has five) is no different than the information typed in by an officer. The new technology simply makes it more easily accessible.

Both the Chandler and Phoenix Police departments will provide the information to other agencies for investigative purposes but also limit access to the auto theft detectives.

"People who are not involved in crime, they're not involved in any type of illegal activity, we're not tracking them. This is just information that is in the data bank by virtue of the fact that an officer drove by," said Martos.

"We're Americans, we value our privacy it's one of the hallmarks of our democracy, you know. We feel like we should be left alone," said Soler.

Soler says the ACLU has no problems with the readers if used for honest police work, but does want some guidelines established.

Limits on storage of non-hits -- that means individuals innocent of crimes or reasonable suspicion -- limiting access to the records, and limiting the use of this device for legitimate law enforcement purposes.

"MCSO our cameras the stuff that is downloaded to this computer stays in this computer," said the undercover MCSO detective.

MCSO overwrites data collected in 30 to 40 days. But that can change if a different system is adapted.

"I know just last week I picked up a stolen license plate hit at 99th and McDowell."

For now, at least for this detective, the focus remains recovering stolen property and arresting the thieves who took it.

Even though the license plate readers have GPS they do not continue to track a vehicle or plate once it is out of sight of the camera. It only records your location and time if an officer drives by.

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