Is Your Car Being Tracked by a License-Plate Scanner?

The government can now track your movements when you drive and, over time, put together a profile of how you lead your life

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If you drive through Maryland, the state may be using an automated reader to photograph your license plate — and storing your movements away for future use. Maryland is not alone. ACLU offices in 38 states are looking into how the government is using license-plate readers across the country — and what it is doing with the data. The ACLU is already calling the license-plate readers “the next big thing in government tracking.”

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There are some uses of automatic license-plate readers that most people would agree are relatively unobjectionable — looking for cars that fled crime scenes or have been stolen, for example. The real problem is that when the government stores that information, it is not trying to solve an ongoing crime — it is building a database. These databases can quickly fill up with all sorts of details about how people lead their lives. By piecing together the locations of a particular license plate over time, the government may be able to determine if someone goes to church, synagogue or mosque regularly; whether they go to meetings of a particular political group; whether they participate in protests; or even if they are having an affair.

It’s hard to know how widespread the technology is, but to give one example, Los Angeles County alone is using hundreds of license-plate readers. According to LA Weekly, which got its numbers in part through public-records requests, Los Angeles police have recorded more than 160 million data points about the movements of millions of drivers.

It would be troubling enough if the license-plate data stayed instate, but it doesn’t. Maryland, for example, shares its records with a “fusion center” — an antiterrorism office that is run jointly by federal, state and local governments. That means that the federal government can combine data from different states and track people’s movements across the entire country.

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The federal government is also using license-plate readers. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which has been trying to get permission to use the readers in Utah, stated publicly that it is already operating scanners along drug-trafficking corridors in Texas and California. The federal government is also making money available to states to acquire license-plate readers. The ACLU of Massachusetts has filed a federal Freedom of Information Act request to learn more about how the federal government is using and funding license-plate readers.

But are scanners a violation of privacy? There used to be general agreement that activities like driving, which occur on public streets, are not private — and that people have no right to complain when their movements are being tracked. But the rise of highly invasive technology and databases is changing that. As one federal appeals court put it in an influential ruling involving the police planting GPS devices on people’s cars, these high-tech instruments allow the government to put together a “mosaic” of how people live their lives — a massive privacy violation.

Bottom line: license-plate reading should not be done in secret. The public has a right to know what kind of monitoring the government is doing, and there should be a public discussion of the appropriate trade-offs between law enforcement and privacy rights. If the ACLU offices get the information they want about how the federal and state governments are using license-plate readers, that discussion can begin.

MORE: License-Plate Scanners: Fighting Crime or Invading Privacy?

96 comments
scottn341
scottn341

This wouldn't bother me quite so much if their was some way of reading the VIN and occupants as well.  Swapping plates is more common than people realize especially between makes and models and specific colors.  Most people aren't even aware of their license plate number unless their vanity has taken the form of a license plate.

Trajan Saldana
Trajan Saldana

everyone goes on about the right to this or that...let's be clear; if it can be denied you or taken away it is not a right, it is a privilege

CT2211
CT2211

So the government is tracking us.  This has probably been going on for ages and it is a topic that has been consciously growing in people's awareness.  Does anyone think this is a good thing?  I mean, who cares if someone knows what we are doing.  If we are doing something that we shouldn't be, then that's pretty much a hint that we shouldn't be doing that in the first place.   Sure it sounds terrible to have our movements tracked but if this can help us find criminals and terrorists, possibly before anything happens, I'm all for it.  This might even make our society a little more honest, not just people but businesses as well, by making us more aware of the things we do.

John
John

So, the government is pretty much like Facebook? Tracking everything we do and compiling a dossier on us? Is this news? Not really. This is what those in power want, to have power over those "under" them.

infosec
infosec

Automated

license plate readers (ALPR) are a force multiplier to generate revenue.

 For cities, it is a terrific revenue generator without deploying more

city employees in the field.  For registered car owners, LPR units have

been widely deployed since 2010 or perhaps earlier to automatically scan

commuter license plates in search of outstanding traffic and criminal

violations.  The

data is stored for at least one year with a logical goal of generating

revenue against those that officially break the law by leveraging fewer people

with automation.  This is the same premise as red light traffic cameras or

speeding cameras which automatically send a ticket to you in the mail.

 The difference is those automated short term camera systems do not

remember you and your car.  The relationship is

every time you pass through a busy intersection or you see a police car or

meter maid- ALPR is running your plate automatically and an immediate suggested

action is provided to law enforcement.  The long term problem is, data is

definitely stored and it is not difficult to correlate data using at least

thirty samples to create an automated risk rating for EVERY registered car

owner.  Hypothetically, a single LPR unit which is able to scan about

5,000 plates during a single shift could apply a red, yellow or green risk

rating within a two to three year period for any registered car owner based on

characteristics you may feel are not a threat to any person or property.

 The city officials who control the data may feel differently about how

they measure your lawful green or yellow behavior if not enough revenue is

being generated by the existing pool of high risk (red) drivers.  Rest assured log management software exists

today which can accomplish this risk rating scheme. All one needs is enough driver

specific data samples over a certain period of time.

 

In

sum, think of the ALPR database as a "no fly list" for drivers

meaning, although no law may have been broken, nor racial profiling should have

been applied- every registered driver could be assigned and considered a certain

risk due to past violations or via a patterned presence in a violation

"hot zone" over the past 2- 7 years.  Imagine this, you drive by

or park near some random high value asset on your way to work and you could be

marked as a high risk or worse an insider threat based on your patterned behavior

and not your clean driving record. 

 

Ultimately,

all long term stored data is mined to generate more revenue by correlating the

stored data points on how you live your driving, cell phone and internet life. One simple question exists: who owns stored data?  For the ALPR discussion, I suggest pressuring

your local City Councilman and Mayor to delete the ALPR data as soon as the

official outstanding driving violation has been resolved and at least on an

annual basis for every other registered car owner.

Vick Rattlehed
Vick Rattlehed

Less federal control please.   Let the people govern themselves, thanks.

Purita Fleschhut
Purita Fleschhut

Time is in the offing that your private activities/life is no longer your own. Big brother

can track your movements, travels through your car's license. 

If and when -------  that would be the last straw. Time to move on.

doubtom
doubtom

The citizen's response is as simple as the nose on your face,  round up some volunteers who dislike government surveillance and give them each a ballbat and allow them to express their love of big government's cameras. No one voted for these damn cameras and its the people who are being recorded who should have a say in whether or not government has a right to record their every move.  Take back your government.

What burns my tail is that it's "American" citizens who are complicit in these raids on our rights.  Apparently there's always a sufficient number of traitors to turn a democracy into a dictatorship.  Profit over freedom!  Money is the guiding principle of capitalism as it turns our Republic into a dictatorship.

nowhere1111
nowhere1111

Sounds like most people here would also be OK w/ the gov tapping our phones any time (w/o a warrant) as much as they want. Why not cameras in or houses if you have nothing to hide?? How about mics in all businesses and churches? Pretty much all the same 'If you have nothing to hide'.

SaiRVT
SaiRVT

i really don't have any problem with tracking unless that data is sold for some targetted advertisement. Imagine huge billboards with targetted advertisements. :D or even worse my GPS suggesting my next destinatin based on my previous trip. 

nowhere1111
nowhere1111

You OK w/ J Edgar Hoovers private 'database'? Why not SAY what its being used for OR have to get a judge to sign off.

SaiRVT
SaiRVT

mate, i am not ok with Mr.Edgar Hoover's  tactics. blacmailing is immoral and illegal. but i dont think how a few cameras on roads could blackmail me? could you kindly elaborate?

cheerio

orlandojon
orlandojon

Maybe they can use them to catch all the Northerners that move to Florida then take the expiration decal off their out of state license plates to avoid buying Florida plates

Purnell Marks
Purnell Marks

If you don't like it - Walk to work! Ha ha ha ha! This is the way of progress.

Andrew Hanuk Choi
Andrew Hanuk Choi

If you aren't a terrorist or smuggling illegal things, this really isn't a problem.

nowhere1111
nowhere1111

READ the article pls. You don't KNOW what the data base is being used for because they won't say. It very well could be used for political pursue ala J Edgar Hoover.

David Fields
David Fields

Fear mongering.

I know. Everybody wishes they were back in the horse-and-buggy days when nobody knew where you were or what you were doing. Who cared when your horse was stolen and you had to spend maybe a year's income to replace it without the benefit of any kind of insurance or even all that much effort to recover that stolen mount? 

Ok, so I might agree that this collection of information CAN be used against you. Let me ask you this: Why are you worried? Exactly what are you doing that you are so afraid somebody else might find out? Really, why would any governmental agency even bother to do the data mining necessary to backtrack your driving habits if they don't have any reason? I seem to remember a lot of times when people asked, "Why can't you find my car," when their wheels were stolen. Or, "I was just carjacked! Find them and arrest them!" Hey, some of those carjackers have been murderers, too.

Rather than obsessing over the highly unlikely events that really won't affect your lives, how about realizing the benefits of systems like these for finding real criminals? "Number of the Beast"? Hey, it's too late. One way or another you are already "tattooed" with an identification number. If you are a citizen of this world, the only way you will escape that number is if you live in a land that's so poor that they can't even afford to support their citizens. You might hide, but you can't run. As far as I'm concerned, who cares?

Spencer Shaw
Spencer Shaw

 SickOfTheStupid, your are a moron. Its more like 5% of the Police Officers are corrupt. NO ONE is going to join you are your conspiracy theory that Police are trying to over through you all. Get a grip. If you hate it here, get the hell out. Most of us don't want you here.

Spencer Shaw
Spencer Shaw

Who cares if they track you. Woopy doo, they know I go to this place at this time. Its not much different than Police Officers running your plate. The only people that really care are political nuts and conspiracy theorists.

nowhere1111
nowhere1111

it's VERY different because it's done to ALL cars, w/ no purpose in mind, logged, kept in a data base forever and shared w/ other states. I don't really problem have w/that. Just think they should get a warrant from a judge who knows their intent when they want to access the data base.

biologixco
biologixco

JUST COVER THE BAR CODE WITH TAPE

Voila~!

Problem solved with a Low Tech solution

All hail the great and powerful duct tape~!

Spencer Shaw
Spencer Shaw

There is no bar code...it runs your plate numbers/letters.

biologixco
biologixco

Indiana has a bar code on their plate.

You can get light diffracting plastic covers, but they are outlawed in some places.

Meredith Hayden
Meredith Hayden

"or even if they are having an affair." That's nonsensical. My husband could be visiting his coworker every day after work for a month because they're working on a project, she needs help with a sick relative, or just because they're lifelong friends. How exactly could reading the movements of his car distinguish between that and having an affair? Way to make people overly paranoid. Sensational, alarmist news reporting.

Spencer Shaw
Spencer Shaw

 Exactly. I HIGHLY doubt anyone in the Federal Government cares if we go to get a pizza. Get a grip CNN. All you are doing in fear mongering. Bunch of losers.

nowhere1111
nowhere1111

It very well could be used for political pressure ala J Edgar Hoover. The point is NOT the gov CAN'T. Just tell is what they are using it for. kinda like search warrants. No problem, just have someone monitoring.

Check_Please
Check_Please

Maryland has a long history of Jackboot thuggery. 

Check_Please
Check_Please

 Where are the cameras that watch the crooks in power????

Kevin W
Kevin W

We are only years away from realistic impanted GPS chip technology. This will be sold as a safety device for kids (you always know where they are and you can track kidnappers) and who knows what convienence... withing 1/2 a generation the majority of people will be tracked every min of their lives. The data will be used to control, oppress, and sell more useless products we don't need

1984, move over, it's the 21st century is here... massive computing power is turing science fiction into yesterday's news

Paul Doreika
Paul Doreika

The way I look at it is that the people who have something to hide are the ones who should most be afraid of the technology.  However, the libertarian in me tells me that we are already too tightly monitored.  I say, if you have someone to be suspicous of, for cause, then track 'em.  But when someone isn't under suspicious, there's no need to track nor record them or their travels.

trueb0b
trueb0b

Tell that to the Polish Jews.  Oh wait...

Check_Please
Check_Please

 so your true heart shows; one of control over freedom. rest in peace my friend.

Check_Please
Check_Please

 a bit more libertarian would seem to be in order.

blakeNaustin
blakeNaustin

Big brother is watching.  Our federal government has become far too powerful and needs to be restrained -- spending and authority.

upabove
upabove

Its called a police state for a reason everyone is a criminal and all you do is suspect to observation and monitoring for you own good by our BNYPD or what ever theyre calling themselves today to violate your constitutional rights.  Its call abuse of power and should hold those repsonsible for Treason against the american people and our constituion.

Spencer Shaw
Spencer Shaw

 Its not a police state. If you knew what you were talking about, you would not have said that. Everyone is quick to judge things they don't know much about.

lasertekk
lasertekk

Really, like they would honestly tell you what the data is for.

Guest
Guest

This country is growing more Orwellian and communistic with each passing day.  When this will all end it will ba a catastrophic event!

Yoshi_1
Yoshi_1

@ Fatesrider: If the current "transparency" we are experiencing is any guide, it'll be as clear as MUD.

Yoshi_1
Yoshi_1

@ozfozzy:  They'd have a much more difficult time of it were there, say, five

million people firing back.  Look around the world, look at history.

remember the Warsaw ghetto. Don't go willingly!

Yoshi_1
Yoshi_1

 They'd have a much more difficult time of it were there, say, five million people firing back.  Look around the world, look at history. remember the Warsaw ghetto. Don't go willingly!

Jessica Litwin
Jessica Litwin

These mysterious cameras in boxes have started showing up all over Massena and Malone, NY.  Are these license plate trackers?  Malone already had various cameras at red lights and in intersections, but these just started showing up along highways (with no press release/explaination).  Massena and Malone are both near Canada.  Any thoughts?  What are they tracking? Why are they tracking?  http://northcountrynow.com/new...