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Your License Plate Is Being Used to Spy on You

Just what kind of information is being collected and why?

Have you noticed the portable digital speed displays on roads and highways? Well, they aren’t only being used to make sure you stay within the posted speed limits. Many of them are equipped with automated license plate readers (ALPRs) that capture a lot more information than just how fast you’re going. Although this technology has been around for decades, it has become a form of surveillance some claim is a violation of privacy rights, and citizens in at least one state are suing.

There were working prototypes of automated license plate readers back in 1979, but they weren’t used as surveillance as they are today. There are three categories of ALPRs: stationary or fixed, mobile cameras, and trailers. Stationary ALPRs stay in a set location, such as traffic lights and telephone poles. Some facilities have them at their entrances, and even private housing communities use them to track residents and visitors. Mobile devices are usually attached to police cars. Trailers are mostly the speed indicators seen on streets and highways.

There are pros and cons, of course, for automated license plate readers. They help law enforcement track down stolen cars, find kidnap victims, and locate illegal immigrants. But that data could also be used for much more.

Using Your License Plate to Track You

The databases can be stored for years and are sometimes maintained by private companies – which may sell the data. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation pointed out:

“In addition to capturing license plate data, the photographs can reveal images of the vehicle, the vehicle’s drivers and passengers, as well as its immediate surroundings – and even people getting in and out of a vehicle. Some products create ‘vehicle fingerprints’ that also include information such as the vehicle’s color, make, model, physical damage, and bumper stickers.”

Still not concerned? ALPRs have been used to track vehicles at political events, rallies, and protests and in low-income neighborhoods. Once enough information is gathered, ALPRs can predict where people are likely to go. And remember, this isn’t just law enforcement getting this information – private companies are controlling and selling it as well.

But the Liberty Justice Center in Illinois is fighting back, filing a lawsuit against the use of automatic license plate reading cameras in the Prairie State. “Every time you drive on one of these expressways, they are tracking every time you go past one of these cameras,” explained Reilly Stephens, counsel on the case, adding that the cameras are virtually everywhere. “They’re feeding that into a national database which is shared by thousands of law enforcement agencies across the country.”

Illinois State Police say the technology was being increased to “target and track criminal activity,” according to The Center Square. “Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs) capture a visual of vehicle license plates and anytime a wanted or suspected vehicle is detected by an ALPR, an alert is issued and law enforcement are better able to locate and track the vehicle.”

But the technology captures a lot more, including “every time you went to the doctor, every time you went to a political rally, a Trump rally, a Joe Biden rally, a Black Lives Matter rally, an NRA event,” Stephens told The Square. “The permanent tracking of every citizen and all of their travels and whereabouts is a bridge too far,” he added, saying the lawsuit argues that the system is a violation of Fourth Amendment rights against unwarranted search and seizure.

There have been instances of abuse of the system. In New York, officers drove down a street to record license plate numbers of people parked near a mosque, EFF described. In 1998, a Washington, DC, police officer used it to look up plates near a gay bar and blackmailed the owners. In Kansas, an officer was arrested, suspected of using the ALPR database to stalk his estranged wife.

Such technology is important to assist law enforcement, but when does it become an infringement on individual privacy?

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