Politics

ACLU Decries Virginia State Police Use of Automatic License Plate Readers

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The idea that given the right technology, the government is going to try to monitor its citizens appears in many works of science fiction, most notably George Orwell’s classic Nineteen Eighty-Four. Although we still may be far away from Oceania’s notorious Thought Police, recent revelations about the NSA and the use of technology by the government seems like it might be the kind of thing Orwell was hoping to incite citizens to watch out for. The ACLU is also pointing out another abuse of technology, this time by the Virginia State Police.

“From 2010 until last spring,” writes the Legal Director of the ACLU of Va., “The Virginia State Police (VSP) maintained a massive database of license plates that allowed them to pinpoint the locations of millions of cars on particular dates and times.” The VSP employed an automatic license plate reader, which captures and stores pictures of license plates into a database that tracks that plate as it appears on various traffic cameras and other surveillance.

For the ACLU this alone is unconscionable – that the police would maintain a database on citizens not suspected of any criminal activity – however what really irked the group was that the VSP scanned the license plates of cars that attended campaign events for President Obama (including the inauguration in 2009) and then-candidate for Vice President, Sarah Palin. The International Association of Chiefs of Police also warned that employing these devices, especially at political events, might curtail “the exercise of [law-abiding citizens’] protected rights of expression, protest, association, and political participation because they consider themselves under constant surveillance.”

Critics suggest that those with “nothing to hide” would not fear having their license plates scanned, willing to sacrifice a little privacy for an added sense of security.