When the police lurk on city roads looking for speedsters, they often have technology that instantly rereads a vehicle’s license plate. Through this, they can get detailed driver information and verify warrants. Tap or click here to learn how digital license plates are equipped with numerous tracking sensors.
But as license plate scanners have evolved, they have become more accessible to the public. This naturally creates a privacy issue, as seemingly ordinary citizens can track anyone’s car.
Read on to find out what data they collect and why you should be concerned.
Here is the backstory
The technical term for the devices is Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ALPR), and you’ll often see them on street poles or mounted on police patrol vehicles.
The primary use for law enforcement is to quickly scan a car’s license plate and record the time, date and location. From there, the police use the data to track down the owner or to see if there are any outstanding warrants.
Police in Fort Worth, Texas are even using scanning technology to catch people throwing fireworks within the city limits. A team monitors security cameras and LPR devices from the city’s real-time crime center.
The Houston Police Department has been using ALPR for a few years, and a YouTube Video 2016 explains that officers use mounted cameras while on patrol. When the system detects a stolen or wanted vehicle, it alerts the officer in less than a second.
Why are LPR devices a problem?
For the most part, police use technology to find stolen vehicles. But before that can happen, they have to scan every car. So every time an officer drives through the neighborhood, they check each car’s license plate, record the numbers, location, date, and take a photo.
Depending on police department policy, data is stored from seconds to years. It wouldn’t be so bad if the data stayed in the police network, but some private third-party providers also collect this information. And the police regularly use these companies to manage the data.
Some of the data LPRs can capture include:
- License plate information
- Vehicle make and model
When combined with security cameras, even more information can be captured, including:
- Photos of drivers and passengers
- Driving habits and regular destinations
- Immediate environment
- car stickers
The executive director of the Liberty & National Security program at the Brennan Center for Justice, Rachel Levinson-Waldman, recently said there are real concerns about how these devices intrude on privacy.
“The police don’t need a warrant to get this kind of information. If you combine this license plate data with other information (such as cell phone tracking), it becomes really dangerous to have this license plate reader data in hand,” she explains.
The controversial technology formed the basis of a Vice investigation which revealed that a little-known company called Flock allows police officers to track cars (and specific people) outside their jurisdiction.
Through a program called TALON, “cameras can automatically record when a ‘non-resident’ vehicle enters a community and alert police to blacklisted cars,” Vice’s The motherboard explains.
What can you do about it
The TALON system is used nationwide and more than 500 police departments in 1,000 cities have access to these cameras. It works so fast that it can deliver 500 million scans per month. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about it.
As Levinson-Waldman explains, “The Supreme Court ruled quite clearly that because vehicles on public roads could be seen by any member of the public, there is simply no expectation of privacy in the context of license plates”.
If LPR devices become widespread, the government may need to establish regulations to protect the privacy of its citizens.
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