The American Civil Liberties Union is bringing national attention to a growing issue in the privacy vs. safety debate. According to a report released by the organization, law enforcement agencies around the country are using license plate readers to record the movements of everyday Americans.
This issue is not new to Utah, which is in fact ahead of the curve, as far as limiting access to this data is concerned.
The debate over license plate scanners began in early 2012 after the Drug Enforcement Administration proposed installing some in Southern Utah along Interstate 15 for the purpose of catching drug traffickers. This spurred a debate in the Utah Legislature over the ethical use of the scanners and the massive amounts of data they collect.
The license-plate readers, which police typically mount along major roadways or on the backs of cruisers, can identify vehicles almost instantly and compare them against "hot lists" of cars that have been stolen or involved in crimes. Ogden is among cities that have used the scanners.
But the systems collect records on every license plate they encounter -- whether or not they are on hot lists -- meaning time and location data are gathered in databases that can be searched by police. Some departments purge information after a few weeks, some after a few months and some never, said the report, which warns that such data could be abused by authorities and chill freedom of speech and association.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, spearheaded legislation to limit government access to the data collected by scanners.
The law states that government agencies can only keep the data for a maximum of 90 days and that a specific record can only be accessed with a court order.
Utah is one of five states to have legislation that places limits on the data. The ACLU's report says there is little to no oversight in other states for the use of records collected by scanners.
"We're better off than 45 other states," said Marina Lowe, legislative council for the ACLU's Utah branch.
Lowe said although the state has made progress with the legislation, more should be done.
"The state needs to go further and limit the amount of time," Lowe said, mentioning that the 90 days the records are kept on file is too long. New Hampshire's law requires that data be kept for less than 30 days, which Lowe said is an acceptable time.
Utah's law enforcement agencies have argued that the license plate readers are an invaluable tool and that limiting their use and access is the wrong way to go.
Police said they've recovered stolen vehicles using license plate readers and can immediately flag unregistered or uninsured motorists. Utah sheriffs have told legislators that scanner information kept for long periods can help solve homicides or kidnappings.
"We'd like to be able to keep the data as long as possible, because it does provide a rich and enduring data set for investigations down the line," said David Roberts, senior program manager for the Technology Center of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
But the ACLU argues that data collection by most police departments is unnecessarily broad. In an analysis of data collected in Maryland, the report found that license plate readers recorded the locations of vehicle plates 85 million times in 2012.
Based on a partial-year analysis of that data, the ACLU found that about one in 500 plates registered hits. In the overwhelming majority of cases, it said, the alleged offenses were minor, involving lapsed registrations or failures to comply with the state's emission-control program.
For each million plates read in Maryland, 47 were associated with serious crimes, such as a stolen vehicle or a wanted person, the report said. Statistics collected by the ACLU in several other jurisdictions around the country also found hit rates far below 1 percent of license plates read.
Maryland officials have defended their program, which collects data from departments across the state in a fusion center, which shares intelligence among federal, state and local agencies. In a recent three-month period, state officials said, license plate readers contributed to 860 serious traffic citations and the apprehension of 180 people for crimes, including stolen autos or license plates.
The center deletes the data one year after they are collected, in what officials said was a compromise between investigative needs and privacy rights.
"We don't want to retain more information ... than is necessary," said Harvey Eisenberg, an assistant U.S. attorney who oversees Maryland's Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council. "You strike the balance, because people are legitimately concerned."
The license plate readers are also widely used in Washington and the Virginia suburbs, where they are mounted on many of the major roadways entering and leaving the city.
Private companies also are using license-plate-reading technology to build databases, typically to help in repossessing cars.
The Associated Press and Washington Post contributed to this story.