Danville, VA - You'd probably never notice it, but your license plates could be under surveillance.
Police in our area and across the country are using license plate readers to catch criminals. But the ACLU says these readers are storing the information of innocent people.
The organization's biggest concern is privacy. The ACLU says it's wrong to photograph plates without probable cause and may be unlawful to use that stored data in future investigations.
We talked to the Danville Police Department to see how they are using the technology. The tiny devices have been the source of much debate throughout the year. The readers capture photographs of each license plate that passes by, possibly thousands per day.
"And it takes those characters and it compares them against a list," said Maj. Chris Wiles of the Danville Police Department.
That list is a rundown of all open investigations in the city in which a tag number may be involved, from stolen cars to suspect vehicles. But ACLU officials say it is privacy infringement.
"To collect this information passively on an on-going basis and put it in a database for future reference, we don't think that's a good thing for government to be doing," said Claire Gastanga, ACLU.
The data collected is stored, whether a crime has been committed or not, and in certain states it is kept on file for years.
"That's part of some of the privacy concerns, how long the reads on non-hit vehicles are retained," said Wiles.
In Danville they've decided to delete the data after 6 months. And since the attorney general raised concerns over using collected data in future investigations, they've decided to only use the data in active investigations. In other words, if you are a suspect in a crime next month they won't go search the data to see where you've been lately. ACLU leaders say they hope all jurisdictions will take a closer look at the way they are using this technology.
"Just because the police can and technology allows it and it might be useful doesn't make it right or constitutional," said Gastanga.
Police in Danville say the readers do not actively compare license plate numbers to information on file at the DMV so your personal information is safe. And they have no live-tracking capabilities.