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Privacy, Civil Liberties at Risk in Syracuse ALPR Rollout

The Syracuse Police Department wants to install automated license plate readers at 26 locations around the city. But without the proper checks in place, the program threatens privacy, civil liberties and civil rights.

(TNS) — The Syracuse Police Department wants to install automated license plate readers (ALPRs) at 26 locations around the city to continuously capture the daily movements of drivers just going about their lives.

In a two-paragraph description of its proposal, SPD says it would use the cameras “to aid with investigations and the apprehension of suspects after criminal activity has occurred.”

That barely scratches the surface of this technology’s implications for infringing on personal privacy, civil liberties and civil rights. We are alarmed by those implications and concerned City Hall has not done enough to inform you about them as it prepares to select a vendor and ask the Common Council to award a contract, perhaps as early as next month.

The deadline to submit public comments is Friday, March 24. The comment period is required by Mayor Ben Walsh’s 2020 executive order to ensure residents have input on proposals for new surveillance technology. However, most people don’t know enough about it to have any meaningful input. Here’s some information that may help you formulate an opinion:

License plate readers have solved some crimes by alerting police immediately to a stolen car or an abducted child. However, a minuscule number of license plates scanned by ALPRs are on a “hot list” of wanted vehicles — far fewer than 1%. That means 99% of law-abiding drivers are being continuously monitored for no reason.

There also have been some harrowing instances where police pulled over drivers, and even drew guns on them, based on an incorrect reading of a license plate or an outdated “hot list.” Automated plate readers are prone to error as often as 30% of the time.

Storing license plate data for more than a few minutes, hours or days creates opportunities for police to piece together a driver’s routines, healthcare appointments, places of worship, sexual relationships and even attendance at protests. Knowing they are being watched could chill people’s constitutional rights of free speech, free exercise of religion and assembly.

Syracuse’s request for proposals from vendors seeks a system capable of storing license plate data for 30 days to six months. That’s way too long. Even the city’s current data retention policy of 30 days would be too long. If the purpose of ALPRs is to find vehicles on a “hot list,” scans should be purged within seconds or minutes.

Overlaying proposed ALPR locations with population data shows they would have a disparate impact on neighborhoods with high concentrations of Black and brown residents, said Daniel Schwarz, privacy and technology strategist for the New York Civil Liberties Union. Schwarz is familiar with the outlines of SPD’s plan as a member of the city’s Surveillance Technology Working Group, a collection of citizens and stakeholders who advise Walsh on these issues.

New York is one of 34 states that do not regulate ALPRs, with the exception of its cashless tolling system. New York law prohibits use of that license plate data for anything but collecting tolls. The data is not sold, and law enforcement needs a subpoena to gain access to it. In contrast, there are recommendations, but no rules, for using and storing data collected by police ALPR systems. There have been many documented abuses, such as stalking and unlawful surveillance based on a person’s religious or political affiliation.

Companies that market ALPRs are amassing huge nationwide databases of people’s whereabouts — and then selling that information to police agencies and governments seeking to track people across state lines. Flock Safety, a vendor SPD considered last year, brags that its search network has access to billions of license plate reads. Flock provides it to anyone who lawfully asks. That could include immigration authorities or states with abortion bans wanting to prosecute women seeking abortions in states where it is legal, including New York.

“When private companies collect the most sensitive minutiae of our private lives, track our locations in perpetuity, and then, without our informed consent, share that data with the government, it destroys individual privacy,” Schwarz wrote in opposition to the Flock pilot project in Syracuse that never materialized.

There is no evidence ALPRs reduce crime, despite slick marketing claims from companies that monetize data on the whereabouts of overwhelmingly law-abiding citizens. Just how much privacy are we willing to give up for the illusion of safety? This would be too much, in our opinion.

It’s on Chief Joe Cecile and the mayor to make the case for deploying this intrusive surveillance technology, despite its privacy and liberty tradeoffs. They also need to be a lot more transparent about how police will use the data, how long it will be kept and whether it will become part of a nationwide database. Ultimately, the Common Council will have to decide whether ALPRs are worth it.

We’re skeptical of this surveillance technology. You should be, too.

To submit a comment, go to

Editorials represent the collective opinion of the Advance Media New York editorial board. Our opinions are independent of news coverage. Read our mission statement. Members of the editorial board are Tim Kennedy, Trish LaMonte, Katrina Tulloch and Marie Morelli.

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