The spread of cheap, powerful cameras capable of reading license plates has allowed police to build databases on the movements of millions of Americans over months or even years, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report released Wednesday.
New Hampshire received high marks in the report for the state's handling of such devices — they are prohibited in the Granite State — but that could change later this year if a compromise can be reached on a bill that was sent to committee for further review earlier this year.
"I'm reasonably confident that we can come to some sort of agreement on it," said Rep. Steve Shurtleff, D-Concord, who sponsored HB675 to allow plate readers to be used by state and local police departments. "Once we sit down with it again, I think all the concerns will be addressed."
The license-plate readers, which police typically mount along major roadways or on the backs of cruisers, can identify vehicles almost instantly and compare them against "hot lists" of cars that have been stolen or involved in crimes.
But the systems collect records on every license plate they encounter — whether or not they are on hot lists — meaning time and location data are gathered in databases that can be searched by police. Some departments purge information after a few weeks, some after a few months and some never, said the report, "You are Being Tracked: How License Plate Readers Are Being Used to Record Americans' Movements," which warns that such data could be abused by authorities, and chill freedom of speech and association.
"The New Hampshire Legislature needs to be extremely cautious when considering whether to subject the residents of this state to the use of the devices referenced in our report," said New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Devon Chaffee. "I testified on the original HB675, and as an organization we had some serious concerns about it, centered around the length of time that data collected by the scanners would be stored. If a license came back as a 'hit' in the system, that was considered enough to stop a car on reasonable suspicion, and that absolutely should not be the case."
Shurtleff said the top concern he heard during discussions on HB675 was the length of time data would be stored. He said he believes a compromise can be reached.
"I think storing the data for 48 hours is a reasonable amount of time," said Shurtleff. "I think some would like it dumped after 20 seconds, but I don't think that's useful."
Shurtleff expects the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee to take up HB675 for further review in either August or September, with a recommendation to approve or reject expected by November.
In an analysis of data collected in Maryland, the report found that license-plate readers recorded the locations of vehicle plates 85 million times in 2012. Based on a partial-year analysis of that data, the ACLU found that about one in 500 plates registered hits. In the overwhelming majority of cases, it said, the alleged offenses were minor, involving lapsed registrations or failures to comply with the state's emission-control program.
For each million plates read in Maryland, 47 were associated with serious crimes, such as a stolen vehicle or a wanted person, the report said.
Statistics collected by the ACLU in several other jurisdictions around the country also found hit rates far below 1 percent of license plates read.
Private companies also are using license-plate-reading technology to build databases, typically to help in repossessing cars.
New Hampshire Union Leader Staff Writer Paul Feely and Washington Post Staff Writer Craig Timberg contributed to this report.