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Cell Phone Tracking, License Plate Readers Raise Privacy Concerns

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The ACLU is asking the Metropolitan Police Department to release more information about how it uses digital crime-solving tools.
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The ACLU is asking the Metropolitan Police Department to release more information about how it uses digital crime-solving tools.

New technology is helping the D.C. police department fight crime in increasingly sophisticated ways. But these tools are also raising the concerns of privacy advocates.

Fritz Mulhauser, senior staff attorney at the Washington-area ACLU, says two new technologies have given police an extraordinary ability to track members of the public.

"First, they're getting from cell phone providers, any time they ask, information on where your cell phone has been," says Mulhauser. "Movement of your telephone is known to the telephone companies and the police ask for it regularly."

Mulhauser believes it's happening hundreds and hundreds of times each year in the District, based on records they have examined in other police departments in major cities.

The ACLU is also troubled by new license plate reader technology that lets police scan license plates from officers' cars and fixed camera locations. The tool helps police track stolen cars and fleeing criminals but, as privacy advocates point out, it also scans the comings and goings of innocent people and stores the data for several years.

"If they know where my car has been for the last two years, that's a frightening amount of data and its irresistible for them to look at for their police purposes," says Mulhauser. 

Police Chief Cathy Lanier says the department is careful with these hi-tech tools.

"We follow the federal guidelines in terms of cell phone tracking, so I don't think we have concerns there and in terms of the license plate reader data," says Lanier. "We also follow the code of the federal regulations there in that the data is purged every three years and is only used if there is a criminal predicate."

But right now, the ACLU and everyone else has to take the police department at its word, Mulhauser says.

"The department has refused our request for records: what they are doing, the legal basis, how long they are storing data, and who can get access to it," says Mulhauser. "They won't talk about it, they won't give records, the public is in the dark."

But Lanier says the police department is withholding the records specifically to protect the privacy of D.C. residents. "I know their concerns are that we won't turn over records to them, but the privacy of the individuals is as important this to us as it is to them," says Lanier. 

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