Police Are Engaged In ‘Mass Tracking' With License Plate Readers

Illustration for article titled Police Are Engaged In ‘Mass Tracking With License Plate Readers

In the past few months Americans have become familiar with the myriad ways the government tracks our e-mails, phone calls and social media usage. According to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union, you can almost certainly add your car's license plate to that list.


Last month the Center for Investigative Reporting released the details of their investigation into police use of license plate reader technology in California.


But this new report from the ACLU, titled You Are Being Tracked: How License Plate Readers Are Being Used to Record Americans' Movements, claims that license plate tracking is far more widespread than just in the Golden State. The data is being used to track the movements of millions of Americans and can be kept forever in some cases, the report says.

Their investigation into license plate reader use in 38 states and the District of Columbia reveals that law enforcement officials are amassing large amounts of data gathered from police on patrol who have license plate readers attached to their cars. The readers snap photos of every passing car, not just ones suspected of criminal activity. An eight-hour patrol shift can collect more than 7,000 license plates.

While the readers can be helpful in identifying people wanted for crimes, the issue lies with the data they collect and how long that data is kept by the agencies themselves, fusion centers and private companies, the ACLU says. When that information is stored long-term and collated, it becomes a powerful tracking tool:

What can location data reveal about people? Trips to places of worship, political protests, or gun ranges can be powerful indicators of people’s beliefs. Is it really the government’s business how often you go to the drug store or liquor store, what doctors you visit, and the identities of your friends? I’m sure all of us can remember something from our past that could embarrass us. If the government comes to suspect you of something in 2020, should it have access to databases stretching back years that could dig up facts about you that previously went unnoticed?


Policies on how long law enforcement can keep this data is not regulated at the federal level and vary from locality to locality, the report says. They can keep the data anywhere from 48 hours in Minnesota to presumably forever in Texas. There is also no oversight of how private companies use this data, and only five states have any laws on the books at all dealing with plate readers.

The ACLU suggests regulating how long this data can be retained. They say they would prefer it be kept only a few days or weeks, not indefinitely. They also recommend that law enforcement not share the data with third parties, that people be allowed to see if they are in a plate database, and that agencies who use the readers report this fact publicly.


It's certainly true that these readers can be a useful law enforcement tool. But personally, my issue with them — and I have the same issue with PRISM and other tracking tools that have come to light — is that they use a blanket approach that treats all Americans like potential criminals. In our system, we are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and these technologies run contrary to that long-held legal concept.

Click here to check out the ACLU's full report. It's eye-opening, to say the least.


Photo credit AP

Share This Story

Get our newsletter



I grew up in a Central European country before the Berlin wall came down, and I have seen how a total-surveillance security state operates. Seeing things like this and the NSA spying system is really, really scary. My family came to the US precisely to avoid this sort of bullshit.

The arguments by supporters of total surveillance boil down to "if you haven't done anything wrong, you have nothing to fear." Well, the issue is that you personally don't get to define what's wrong and what isn't. And what's wrong and what isn't can also change over time. This is not an irrational fear. Remember McCarthyism? Remember the internment of the Japanese during WWII? FBI's dossiers on political activists who haven't done anything illegal? The US government isn't magically incapable of doing some really fucked up things, and that's why allowing the government to know too much about what we're doing is a very, very bad idea. If we allow law enforcement to reduce the space where people can do things and communicate without the government being aware of it, we give the government way too much control and power over us.

At the very least, a system of tracking everyone all the time gives the government a way to charge anyone with something at any given time, or put pressure on people. Suppose you had a brief extramarital affair. Then years later the FBI wants you to spy on your friend who is a member of an organization that the government now doesn't like (say, Greenpeace, ACLU, or Amnesty International). They search through your data, find the pattern of your license plate and your mistress's license plate appearing together, and put pressure on you to cooperate, or they will pass that info on to your wife.

This is NOT a far-fetched scenario. That's exactly how this worked behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. Track everyone, and look for excuses to arrest people who are politically problematic, or look for ways to pressure people into becoming informants. Anyone who thinks this can't happen in the US is a fool.