Privacy SOS

DHS’ license plate tracker program quietly expands nationwide

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Automatic license plate recognition (ALPR) systems are flying off the shelves nationwide, thanks in large part to federal government grants to state and local police. But while DHS, DOJ and even the military are doling out millions of dollars in cash for these systems nationwide, attendant conversation at the local level about the privacy implications the technology presents — and information about any federal guidance to states and locals on data and privacy policies — is seriously lacking.

The stakes are high.

License plate trackers work very well, and police love them. Departments report immediately improved stolen car and outstanding warrant statistics nearly everywhere the machines are deployed. CSI-style, dramatic, blockbuster ALPR-success stories pepper police talking points: here the technology solved a murder, there it led police to a kidnapper in time to save the kidnapped mother and child. 

The machines, either affixed to stationary locations like telephone poles, or mobile, on the front and back of police patrol cars, can record license plates at a rate of thousands per minute. An ALPR-equipped squad car parked outside a church or mosque could suck up the plate data of all motoring worshippers while the police officer inside reads a book or takes a nap. A mobile system on a highway can record and transmit the plate data of every car that passes it, potentially hundreds of thousands a day.

When the camera snaps a photo of each passing license plate, it also marks the GPS location and time and date of the interaction, storing a unique file for each catch. The system converts the plate number to machine readable text and automatically runs it against any number of law enforcement, homeland security or other databases — including in some places, IRS records.

Police may also manually enter license plates for the system to watch out for.

In Northern Virginia recently, a man reported his wife missing, prompting police to enter her plate number into the system.
They got a hit at an apartment complex, and when they got there, officers spotted her car and a note on her windshield that said, in essence, “Don’t tow, I’m visiting apartment 3C.” Officers knocked on the door of that apartment, and she came out of the bedroom. They advised her to call her husband.

Like with most surveillance technology in the 21st century, the devil that ALPR presents is in the details: data policy and accountability mechanisms.

Police could deploy ALPR with very clear guidelines and policies that narrow the likelihood for system abuse or violations of our privacy. That's happening in Maine, where state legislators mandated deletion of all captured plate data after 21 days. But that's not the case in most places, with potentially disastrous consequences if we don't do something about it, and fast.

Yet another warrantless tracking mechanism for police

The biggest risk posed by limitless ALPR data collection is that police will be able to retroactively track motorists' movements throughout our cities, towns and states — or even throughout the country. Many police departments — and most states — lack clear guidelines requiring that officers delete "non-hit" data after a reasonable amount of time. Without such guidelines, police will collect and in some cases already are collecting vast troves of plate data on people not suspected of having committed any crime.

Police officers are open about why they want to keep all the data. A Tennessee journalist spoke with police officials who bluntly advocated mapping ALPR data for intelligence purposes:

Police see far more potential in a related map database that catches all of the scanned license plates in Gallatin, Hendersonville and Sumner County, even those that didn’t match the criminal lists. With that map, a detective can type in a license plate number seen at a crime scene — or even just a partial tag — and search for places where it has been spotted by cameras.
“That’s the whole key: the databases,” said Hendersonville police Lt. Paul Harbsmeier. “If we collect so many tags just for Hendersonville, it doesn’t do any good for anybody else. Let’s say we catch somebody that was involved in residential burglaries, we might check that tag to see if they were in the vicinity of any other burglaries.”
The Tennessee program is expanding and will no doubt threaten the privacy rights of southerners if it isn't checked, but the most ALPR saturated places in the United States are big, security-complex cities: New York and Washington, DC.
A 2011 Washington Post story on the rapid expansion of limitless ALPR use in the DC Metro area warned about the lack of public debate over the technology, even as police made clear their intent to use the tool to track people.
With virtually no public debate, police agencies have begun storing the information from the cameras, building databases that document the travels of millions of vehicles.
Police in DC and Arlington boasted that the technology saves their departments money and gives police an edge in catching criminals; both of those things are indisputably true. But when police retain our captured plate data for years and pool it together in giant databases, as is happening in Metro DC, the technology ceases to simply serve as a law enforcement tool and becomes yet another warrantless tracking mechanism.
Collection and retention of all of this data pose innumerable privacy risks, but not just because the government could abuse its access to our location information to improperly spy on us or stalk us. We among the public can harm one another with all of this data, as well.
After all, captured plate data are public records. Anyone can obtain access to the very same information that police are storing for up to years at a time. Anyone — that is, your abusive ex-boyfriend, Google, the Obama reelection campaign, or your boss. 
Government abuse is the most serious threat, however, particularly in cities where police abuse runs rampant. 
The NYPD, for example, has hundreds of ALPR cameras scattered throughout New York and atop police cruisers. That department has seen its fair share of scandal over the past few years: the anti-Muslim surveillance operation; a racist stop and frisk program; a long-running drug planting operation; and regular interference with lawful protest and journalism on the streets of New York City, to name a few. 
Should we trust that the NYPD has any interest in New York City residents' privacy as it deploys an ALPR tracking system? 
Not every police department is as anti-democratic and Orwellian as New York's, but the only way to ensure that the hundreds or thousands of small towns and cities that are using or getting ALPR technology don't abuse it is to regulate its use. Since much of the money for ALPR procurement comes from the federal government, local governments have been quick to accept it without much debate and without strict policy rules — with few exceptions
That's got to change. If it doesn't, there's no reason to suspect that the FBI won't soon house yet another giant database, containing all of the captured plate data from the entire country, enabling the government to map and track our whereabouts like never before.
Do you trust the FBI with all that data?
Look out for more information about the growing threat ALPR poses to our privacy. If you are interested in working to limit the negative impacts of the technology in your region, you'll find helpful resources here. 

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.