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The ACLU of Massachusetts has been working to limit the privacy impact of a new technology spreading like wildfire through law enforcement communities nationwide. Read about how Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR) technology works and our efforts to limit its privacy impact as it is deployed throughout Massachusetts. You'll find below a list of towns in Massachusetts that are getting grants from the state for ALPR procurement, as well as a list of towns which did not receive funding from the state but have independently purchased the technology.
Below is a series of resources that may be helpful for your organization or community to use as you examine how ALPR is used in your town.
For Microsoft Word versions of any of these documents or if you have further questions about how to mobilize in your community, please get in touch!
UPDATE: Brookline's Board of Selectmen voted unanimously on September 13, 2011 to say 'no' to the state-funded ALPR program, citing privacy concerns. This is the first town in Massachusetts to do so. We thank the Board, the community and the Chief of Police for their willingness to work towards protecting the civil liberties of Brookline residents!
We also learned that the following cities and towns in Massachusetts were already using ALPR systems: Springfield, West Springfield, Chelsea, Salem, Somerville, Revere, Norwood, Brockton, Essex County Sheriff, Lawrence, Haverhill, Boston, Fitchburg, Ashland, Southbridge, Malden, Medford and Wakefield.
Some of the agencies applying for funds from the state were very explicit about the ways in which they sought to use ALPR for tracking purposes. The Amherst application reads in part:
The ALPR system would enhance the ability of the Amherst Police Department to either track the suspects or place them in the area of the crime to develop probable cause...The Amherst Police Department is a member of the Hampshire/Franklin County Drug Task Force and works closely with the Massachusetts State Police Narcotics Unit. Additionally, the Amherst Police Deparmtent participates with the Federal Bureau of Investigations as a partner of the Joint Terrorism Task Force...The data that the ALPR provides would be beneficial in investigating suspicious activity which may lead to domestic or international terrorism investigations.
Many of the other applications use similar language about sharing information with other state and federal agencies. Amherst asserts that it will retain data for a year, and that it has the "ability to store as much data that is compiled" [sic].
But even in towns that don't have ambitious plans to share data with the FBI, residents will be at risk of such privacy-invasive sharing. That's because the Commonwealth of Massachusetts ties its ALPR grant monies to a requirement that agencies send all of their captured plate data to the state's criminal justice data center, CJIS. Therefore other states' agencies and the federal government will be able to access the data, because those agencies have free access to CJIS' data. This requirement is why Brookline opted out of the state grant in September 2011.
Information sharing among state and federal agencies is problematic partly because of the kinds of advanced data-mining software available to law enforcement. Here in MA, Amherst and many of the other towns who received funds expressed their eagerness to use data-mining software made specifically for ALPRs, called "BOSS," or "Back Office System Software." This technology is what makes ALPRs particularly dangerous because it can pick out particular data from a mountain of information and arrange it in such a way that enables frightening tracking of motorists.