Background on ALPRs

ALPRs are cameras mounted on stationary objects, patrol cars, and other objects. The high-speed cameras snap a photograph of every license plate that passes them, capturing information on up to thousands of cars per minute. The devices convert each license plate number into machine-readable text and check them against agency-selected databases or manually entered license plate numbers, providing an alert to a patrol officer whenever a match or "hit" appears.

The information captured by the readers—including the license plate number and the date, time, and location of every scan—is being collected and often pooled into sharing systems. As a result, enormous databases of innocent motorists’ location information are growing rapidly. This information is often retained for years, or even indefinitely, with few or no restrictions to protect privacy rights.

What’s The Problem?

When used in a narrow and carefully regulated way, ALPRs can help police recover stolen cars and arrest people with outstanding warrants. 

The biggest problem with ALPR systems is the creation of databases with location information on every motorist who encounters the system, not just those whom the government suspects of criminal activity. Police departments nationwide are using ALPR to quietly accumulate millions of plate records, storing them in backend databases. We want to make sure that Iowa law enforcement is not violating the privacy rights of Iowa citizens.

As license plate location data accumulates, the system ceases to be simply a mechanism enabling efficient police work and becomes a warrantless tracking tool, enabling retroactive surveillance of millions of people.

Cities and law enforcement sign contracts with ALPR providers, which too often have massive data collection and profits as their end goal rather than local community safety. One of the biggest providers has been Flock Safety, which has very concerning data collection and privacy practices. 

ALPRs are a technology deployed with too few rules. They are becoming a tool for mass routine location tracking and surveillance. As the technology spreads, the ACLU calls for the adoption of legislation and law enforcement agency policies adhering to strict privacy principles to prevent the government and others from tracking our movements on a massive scale. 

In the Supreme Court case US v. Jones, where law enforcement agents attached a GPS device to a car and tracked it for 28 days without a warrant, the court found that police had violated the Fourth Amendment. Justice Alito explained that society's expectation has been that law enforcement agents and others would not—and indeed, in the main, simply could not—secretly monitor and catalog every single movement of an individual’s car for a very long period. ALPR systems pose the same risk, except they involve tracking all of us rather than specifically targeted individuals.

What the ACLU of Iowa is Doing About It

1. Formulating model ALPR policy

Using information from our national ACLU office and other state’s affiliate's that have been working on ALPR use for some time, the ACLU of Iowa has developed model ALPR Policy for Iowa law enforcement. The policy allows for legitimate law enforcement and public safety uses, while protecting citizens' privacy and other constitutional rights.

To view a model APLPR policy we recommend to Iowa law enforcement who have acquired ALPR technology, click here.

2. Having a dialogue with Iowa police
We have had ongoing discussions with law enforcement to develop responsible policies. For example, we worked collaboratively with the Sioux City Police Department in developing an ALPR policy.