Less than a year ago, the American Civil Liberties Union revealed the sudden — and largely unheralded — adoption of license plate readers by local law enforcement agencies across the country and the group’s deep-seated privacy concerns about their use.
The devices, not to mention the storage and application of the data they collect, have drawn intense scrutiny in the intervening months. And Alexandria’s police department has been caught in the center of much of it.
When the Associated Press first reported on the ACLU’s groundbreaking study into the widespread use of license plate readers in 2013, they ran alongside it a photograph of a city police officer entering that information into a department-issued laptop during a patrol. Since then, the department has been the crosshairs of media outlets and reporters examining the issue, including the Times, the Daily Caller, NBC Washington, The Washington Post and, most recently, investigative reporter Kathryn Watson with Watchdog.org.
When we first reported on it last summer, officials told us the data collected by the devices — which can be used to track vehicles around town — was kept for up to four years. That was dropped to two years as the license plate readers drew more criticism from lawmakers, privacy advocates and members of the press. Just recently, we learned that Police Chief Earl Cook went a step further, reworking the policy so that the information gathered is on file for just six months.
We have editorialized on these devices in the past and regular readers will recall that we did not view them as particularly insidious or detrimental to the privacy of law-abiding individuals. After all, license plate readers collect information on vehicles spotted out in public. A detective or police officer armed with a camera, smartphone or pen and pad of paper could do the same given enough time.
While we understand the concerns of privacy advocates, we do not see employing license plate readers as going far and above regular police work. We pay our lawmen to keep tabs on our neighborhoods — and that, at times, means us.
Still, we were not particularly pleased with how stealthily local authorities adopted the practice. The inherent privacy concerns ought to have been apparent from the get-go. Using the devices may be acceptable, but failing to have a broad public discussion about them beforehand — let alone a heads-up — certainly proved tone deaf.
With that in mind, we are happy to see the police department tweak its license plate data collection and retention policy following the public outcry across Virginia and elsewhere. Keeping that information on file for just six months likely will not appease critics, but it shows law enforcement officials — at least in Alexandria — are listening and responding to the public’s concerns.
This dialogue about the role of technology in our everyday lives, whether employed by government agencies, large corporations or nosey neighbors, is not going to wrap up anytime soon. It’s good to know, then, that our police officials are participating in the conversation.