The Boston Police Department has indefinitely suspended the use of its license plate scanning program for review following an investigation by the Boston Globe and an investigative group into the privacy of its practices.
The suspension comes amid heightened public scrutiny into the tactics and values of the department, a lingering overhang of the unprecedented citywide lockdown in April during the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers.
Police inadvertently gave the Globe license plate numbers and GPS location data of more than 68,000 vehicles in response to an open record request from the department, the Globe reported Saturday. Cars with these plates had tripped alarms on automated license plate readers over a six-month period, with a few tripping the readers dozens of times in predictable ways, with no follow-up from the department.
The Globe questioned whether the police could reliably protect or effectively use all of the sensitive data it is collecting.
In response to Boston's decision to indefinitely suspend the program, Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty project at the ACLU of Massachusetts said it confirms that police departments need outside oversight and guidance in order to responsibly use this powerful technology.
"We applaud the Boston police decision to suspend the program," she said. "In light of these disturbing revelations, no police department in the state should continue to use this technology until the legislature passes the License Plate Privacy Act. We need uniform statewide rules for departments' use of plate readers."
The ACLU proposes new rules governing the use of the technology to identify cars associated with criminal suspects or crimes while preventing the government from amassing databases containing the historical travel records of millions of innocent people.
A wide-ranging debate about the value of civil liberties and the limits of police power began to emerge when Governor Duval Patrick issued a "shelter in place" directive to the city of Boston during the house-to-house manhunt for Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tzarnaev in April following the deadly bombing of the Boston Marathon in April. Patrick's instruction for people to stay in their homes, in retrospect, raised questions about the constitutionality of the order and the militarization of municipal police forces.
Boston Police recently bought 30 AR-15 military-type rifles for routine deployment with police cars and are training 100 police officers in their use, Al Jazeera America reported Saturday. Police departments around Massachusetts have been picking up Army surplus M-16 rifles as well.