CHICAGO – An effort to place modest regulations around the use of powerful automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) in Illinois began with the filing of Senate Bill 1753 by State Senator Daniel Biss. ALPR systems consist of cameras mounted on police cars or a pole, where the cameras scan and “read” the license plate number of every car that passes.The plate number is recorded and stored with the precise location. The plate number is then compared against police and other government databases.

ALPR systems allow police and other government agencies to create a record of where a particular car has been at a particular moment, over an extended period of time. Today, this power is completely unregulated in Illinois.

Currently, there are no regulations governing the use of or retention of data from ALPRs in Illinois. The devices were recently embroiled in controversy when it was revealed that the two federal agencies were working together to gather information about every person who attended (and drove their automobiles) to firearm shows in Arizona. The ACLU of Illinois reported two years ago that the technology was being used in a growing number of communities across Illinois – again, without any regulation.

“ALPRs can play an important role for law enforcement,” said Senator Biss in announcing the filing of the bill. “But like any tool, it must not be used in an unchecked fashion. This measure proposes modest guidelines that will ensure that this law enforcement tool does not evolve into a broad surveillance system.”

Senate Bill 1753 would regulate ALPRS to prevent abuse in the following ways:

  • Limit the purposes for which ALPRs can be used to enforcing the collection of tolls, traffic violations and parking, controlling access to secure areas and conducting on-going criminal investigations;
  • ALPRs also would be allowed for identifying vehicles that are reported stolen, unregistered or relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation, or identifying persons who are missing or the subject of a warrant.
  • Data collected by ALPRs must be destroyed after 30 days unless there is a need to keep the information and it cannot be shared with other government agencies unless there is a court order;
  • Regulates the use of private ALPR data by law enforcement; and,
  • Requires police agencies with ALPR systems to adopt and post policies, notifying the public about how they are working to ensure privacy.

Recent reports indicate that several law enforcement agencies, including the DEA and the ATF, have begun to use ALPRs widely. In response, a number of states have enacted legislation to regulate the use of this technology.

“ALPRs allow government to gather a great deal of information about completely innocent persons,” said Adam Schwartz, staff counsel for the ACLU of Illinois. “Without these regulations, law enforcement can track where we are – church, our doctor, a café or bar, or a political meeting – and store that data for as long as they please.  That creates a record about us that government must not be able to do – without any oversight.”