SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

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September 26, 2012

ACLU sues over data from plate readers

BOSTON (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union sued two federal agencies yesterday to try to force them to answer questions about how they use data from automatic license plate readers.

The complaint was filed against the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in federal court in Boston.

It demands that the departments “immediately and expeditiously” respond to the ACLU’s public information requests, made under the Freedom of Information Act in July.

“Defendants have failed to fulfill their obligations to make the requested information available in a timely fashion,” the complaint reads.

“The components named in this complaint have not released a single record in response to the Request.”

A Department of Justice spokesman said the agency had no comment on the complaint. A request for comment to Homeland Security wasn’t immediately returned.

The license plate readers are mounted on patrol cars or other objects and photograph the plates of vehicles that pass — up to 1,800 plates per minute.

The information is then checked against plates in various government databases and can assist law enforcement authorities in fighting crime by, for instance, tracking down stolen cars or locating children through Amber Alerts.

Officials say the data also can help fight terrorism.

But the ACLU says it has concerns about how the information is used, including how long it’s stored, how it’s secured, who shares the information and whether it’s used to track the movements of people who aren’t suspected of wrongdoing.

Law enforcement officials have said they use the data only to solve crimes.

The ACLU, in its complaint, said the plate readers are largely unregulated, with Maine and New Hampshire the only states with laws that limit how law enforcement can use them.

ACLU affiliates in 38 states filed records requests in July with state and local police to find out how they were using the data. The national ACLU filed the requests with federal agencies, including Justice and Homeland Security.

Yesterday’s complaint was filed in Boston because that’s where the attorneys working on it are located. An ACLU spokesman said state affiliates may file similar complaints in state court in areas where authorities don’t respond.

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