Imagine you’ve just driven to the supermarket, passing dozens of streetlights on the way, perhaps passing under a bridge or by a tow truck in the next lane. You leave your car in the parking lot. How many times during this short trip has your license plate been photographed and entered into a database, along with your GPS coordinates? For millions of unsuspecting Americans, the answer could be that the police or a private company has tracked their travel patterns, now in the full knowledge where they are and where they have been.
Automated license plate readers (ALPRs) are devices that use a camera to automatically photograph any license plates they “see,” collecting the information in a database. As The Wall Street Journal recently described, the vast network of ALPRs across America “makes it nearly impossible to drive anywhere in the U.S. without being observed.”
ALPRs are placed near roads, with locations including streetlights, telephone poles, bridges, overpasses, toll plazas, and parking lots. As well as fixed points, the devices are also mounted on police patrol cars, tow trucks, garbage trucks, mobile trailers, and so on. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a leading digital rights group, patrol car-mounted ALPRs allow “police to ‘grid’ neighborhoods—driving up and down every block in order to gather information on parked vehicles. This data is uploaded along with GPS and time-date information to a searchable database.”
The EFF details the implications of this location-tracking dragnet:
“With just a few keystrokes, police can search the historical travel patterns of a vehicle or identify vehicles that visited certain locations. Police can also add vehicles to a ‘Hot list,’ which is essentially a watch list that alerts them whenever a targeted vehicle is caught on camera. If a patrol car has an ALPR, the officer will be notified whenever they pass a vehicle on the watch list. However, by default, ALPRs collect data on everyone, regardless of whether you have a connection to a crime. That means a lot of surveillance for no justifiable reason.”
According to the foundation: “Taken in the aggregate, ALPR data can paint an intimate portrait of a driver’s life and even chill First Amendment protected activity. ALPR technology can be used to target drivers who visit sensitive places such as health centers, immigration clinics, gun shops, union halls, protests, or centers of religious worship.”
In addition to logging the time and location, as well as vehicle information, the photos can also capture the driver and passengers, the surrounding area, and “may even include bumper stickers, which could reveal information on the political or social views of the driver.”
Requiring no warrant, this information is used and collected by law enforcement and private companies, and was reportedly instrumental in the arrests of several Jan 6. Capitol rioters, as well as the solving of other crimes. But what about the data of millions of law-abiding Americans?
Public and Private
As usual in the surveillance industry these days, the lines between public and private are blurred. Private companies were hardly going to be left out of the action, collecting and selling the data to law enforcement and other entities like insurance providers, repossession firms, and money lenders. One ALPR operator, DRN Data, boasts over 20 billion total vehicle sightings.
Vigilant (owned by Motorola) sells to police and private operators from garbage collection to towing services to parking management, “effectively deputizing them in law enforcement,” as the WSJ described it.
A company called Rektor goes further with technology that can provide in real-time not just a license plate number, but also a vehicle’s make, model, color, and direction of travel. Advertising to fast food outlets and car washes, the company offers a “pay by plate” function; perhaps one day soon, your local drive-thru will simply deduct its bill from your bank account using your license plate information. Rektor also has a mobile app that allows individuals to scan license plates and identify vehicles on their smartphones. As Bloomberg commented about it, “The rise of more casual and cheap surveillance is putting tools once primarily used by law enforcement into the hands of virtually anyone.”
Some systems are also prone to mistaken identity, as they cannot read the state information on the plates – yet. Rather a problem if your criminal record and financial payments are at stake.
The EFF’s Atlas of Surveillance reveals the use of ALPRs in 825 known U.S. locations. Rules vary wildly across the country. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 16 states have moved to limit the data collection in some way. However, at least one of those states – California – has been found by an auditor to be ignoring its own law.
An Alabama bill introduced in late 2020 would provide for ALPR cameras’ use by police with some confidentiality and data protection. A new California bill is far more ruthless, however.
Introduced by State Sen. Scott Wiener (D), the License Plate Privacy Act would ensure that license plates not being used in an active investigation are deleted after 24 hours and require annual audits of police compliance. In a March 23 hearing, Wiener, as well as Dave Maass of the EFF and Mike Katz-Lacabe of the Media Alliance, revealed the following tidbits about how this “mass surveillance” currently operates in the state:
- The four jurisdictions thoroughly investigated by auditors were not compliant with existing law. They also skipped basic cybersecurity measures.
- Less than 1% of the millions of plates captured are related to an active investigation or vehicle of interest.
- Law enforcement is giving the data out “like candy” to other government agencies and non-government bodies around the country – in some cases shared with hundreds or up to 1,000 other entities.
- The databases are often in the possession of a private company.
- Databases in some jurisdictions also include the car owner’s name, address, date of birth, and criminal history.
- Offices of other agencies have access to the data even if it is not relevant to a crime. 13,000 LAPD personnel have access to ALPR data at any given time.
- California Highway Patrol saw 11 cases of misuse in one year.
- Keeping data for long periods of time is likely unnecessary, as 80-90% of queries are related to data collected recently.
When it comes to mass surveillance, Katz-Lacabe perhaps described the situation most simply: “Instead of beginning an investigation after a crime is committed, now everyone is being investigated before any crime is committed.”
Read more from Laura Valkovic.