Privacy SOS

Covert license plate readers may be monitoring your everyday travel

A 2011 National Association for Justice Information Sharing Systems powerpoint presentation reminds us why we should be careful to implement policy guidelines on emerging law enforcement tools before they are deployed in the field. As police departments nationwide acquire the popular technology, the pile of data showing where we drove and when will get larger and larger, meaning the government will be able to access our travel patterns with the click of a button. License plate data sharing programs that cross jurisdictional boundaries mean that police in far away places, even outside of your state, may be able to access that private information about you.

A particularly revealing piece of the NAJISS license plate reader presentation touts the use of covert monitoring systems.

Covert LPR Applications

  • Some agencies gather LPR data covertly
  • May be of benefit in specific applications such as gathering information on a specific location or event where marked unit is problem
  • Can be left parked for a period of time to gather coming and going information
  • Downside: Specific use, usually not full-time, must use caution not to compromise

We already know that the NYPD has used license plate readers to document who attends various mosques in and around New York City. The covert deployment of license plate recognition systems could just as easily allow police or federal agencies to determine who goes to a strip club, a political meeting or an alcoholics anonymous gathering.

Covert systems can be placed just about anywhere. The NAJISS powerpoint presentation shows us how law enforcement can embed them into unmarked police cars. I sure wouldn't be able to tell that these cars have license plate readers. Would you?

Live in Massachusetts and want to ensure that police departments cannot simply store all of this data forever, amassing a detailed history of your motoring movements? Take action to urge your legislators to protect your privacy.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.