Privacy SOS

DC, lookout: license plate readers are casting a wide net and tracking your movements

How much privacy are we willing to lose in order to recover stolen cars? Do you think that trading your location information — where you drive every day, who you visit, what kinds of establishments you frequent — over to the government to enable the police to catch criminals faster is a fair trade? If you live in the District of Columbia, it doesn't really matter what you think because police haven't asked. They've simply acted, creating a virtual net throughout the District, capturing as many as a million data points per month enabling them to track motorists as they drive throughout the city. 

As we've warned on other parts of this website, license plate readers are spreading like wildfire in law enforcement nationwide, without the needed privacy protections good data polices would provide. The technology, operating via cameras either attached to police cruisers or affixed on static objects like light poles, automatically captures license plate numbers and converts the plate data into machine readable text, as well as snagging the time, date and GPS location where and when the plate was pinged.

Police can use the machines to track and find any driver in a city just by sitting back and waiting for that person to drive past one of these cameras. Anyone can be added to the hotlists that alert law enforcement to the presence of a car somewhere — no crime necessary. Indeed, as this important Washington Post article points out, police are casting the broadest net possible in order to conduct what the police themselves admit are "fishing expeditions." 

So what's the big deal? The big deal is that unregulated, as it stands today, this technology enables police to track the movements of millions of people throughout cities, states and even the entire nation without so much as an inkling of suspicion of wrongdoing. And because police departments are mostly free to keep the plate data for as long as they want, this means that over weeks, months and years, the government will gather a very clear picture of how you live your personal life.

The second problem revealed in the Post piece has to do with an alarming trend in public policy making. Or, I should say, the lack thereof. As the ACLU's Jay Stanley says,

…technologies that have such significant implications for our privacy — and more broadly, what kind of society we want to live in — should not be put in place through what I call “procurement policymaking.” The police should not be able to run out and buy a new technology and put it in place before anybody realizes what’s going on — before society has a chance to discuss and debate it and consider where we want to draw the lines between police power and the freedom to live a private life. That decision is one that should be made through the full, open, democratic process — not quietly and unilaterally by police departments.

But that's exactly what is happening in Washington DC, and even in Massachusetts, where we are waiting for the state office of public safety (EOPSS) to issue its recommended data policy on license plate data. As for now? It's a jungle out there.

And we should be particularly alarmed when the people who are in charge of running these systems make statements to the effect of "Privacy? Whatever!" The DC police official responsible for running their license plate tracking program told the Post:

“If you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re not driving a stolen car, you’re not committing a crime…then you don’t have anything to worry about.”

That kind of dismissive attitude about the very serious privacy implications of this unregulated technology, coming from an official granted broad authority to spy on the movements of ordinary people, is shocking to say the least. Occupy DC activists and other targets of the surveillance system be warned: the police can very easily track your movements around the city using these machines, and privacy seems to be the last thing on their mind as they do so. 

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.