Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) systems are the new rage in law enforcement worldwide. The cameras — affixed to a police car or static locations like telephone poles, or under bridges — capture thousands of license plates per minute, storing information in databases, recording not only the license plate number, but also the GPS location where each car was “pinged.” Tens of millions of federal grant dollars have been doled out to police agencies nationwide for ALPR procurement, setting the groundwork for an expansive, nationwide motor vehicle tracking system.
The ALPR surveillance net is already woven tightly in some areas. A 2011 Washington Post report showed that police in and around Washington DC have created an expansive net in the Metro DC area, ensnaring millions of motorists in the ALPR system and retaining information about the travel patterns of all of those ordinary people. Metro DC and lower Manhattan are particularly saturated with the systems, but their use is expanding rapidly nationwide, often assisted by large grants from the federal government.
Here in Massachusetts, the state has plans to roll out a database that will contain the driving history of people from all over the Commonwealth. Officials want to retain the data for a year, enabling police officers and other representatives of state government to track innocent people without warrants or just cause.
Corporate data mining of our travel data
A 2012 investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) showed that at least one private manufacturer of license plate recognition systems has been retaining its own ALPR data, creating an enormous, national database. As government accountability groups have feared, information from that database, the National Vehicle Location Service, is not bound by the few privacy regulations governing government ALPR databases maintained by public agencies. CIR showed that the private firm that owns that database, Vigilant Solutions, sells our data to police, creating a loophole to skirt around the few public regulations that exist to protect us from improper, retroactive police spying.
Governments have for some time purchased our credit, criminal, residential, employment and other data from private corporations. Now ALPR data is added to that mounting pile of information on each one of us, as multinational intelligence and data firms are integrating their systems with ALPR technology, further expanding the reach of the surveillance matrix.
License plate recognition is a very dangerous technology absent proper oversight and data controls. Unless these privacy-protective policies are backed by the force of law, ALPR becomes yet another tracking technology, enabling the government to easily see which motorists among us visit AA meetings, activist gatherings, union meetings or pornography shops. The more information available to these systems, and the longer the data is kept, the more the government and corporations are able to tell about our private lives. Just imagine: police can station an ALPR camera at an address or building of interest and without much human effort compile a very accurate guest list for any event or occasion.
Each license plate recording is like a pixel, or a snapshot of our lives. As Jay Stanley of the ACLU told CIR, “We think once those snapshots become sufficiently dense, it rises to the level of the equivalent of GPS tracking…Each snapshot of a license plate is a pixel. How many pixels do you need before you have a photograph?”
Interested to find out in law enforcement in your town use ALPR? Heard that your local cops are using these machines and want to ensure your privacy is protected? Take action.