Do License Plate Readers Invade Privacy, or Are They a Protected Form of Free Speech?

Monday, February 17, 2014
(photo:PIPS Technology)

A new legal debate has arisen over the use of technology that can read and record license plate information. On one side, privacy advocates want limitations imposed so the technology does not infringe on individuals’ ability to move about freely without being monitored. On the other side, companies that produce this technology claim their free-speech rights are being restricted by laws that limit the equipment’s use.


One business, Texas-based Digital Recognition Network Inc. (DRN) is suing the state of Utah over its new law banning license-plate scanning.


The company has taken a novel legal approach by arguing Utah’s statute infringes upon its First Amendment rights to collect and disseminate license plate information. In effect, DRN can’t do business at all in the state, it claims.


“People tend to invoke privacy and suspend judgment and skepticism,” Michael Carvin of Jones Day, a law firm representing the DRN and Vigilant Solutions, a license-data network that shares information with authorities to find missing people, told the Associated Press (AP). “We don’t track people.”


Todd Hodnett, who founded DRN, says his technology has done a lot of good by helping locate more than 300,000 stolen cars in five years.


But the digital scanning has its downside, which was why Utah lawmakers decided to ban its use on automobiles. Republican state Sen. Todd Weiler, who sponsored the new law, said he and others were alarmed when they learned police were gathering widespread data from mobile license-plate readers. He worried about privacy concerns unless the government restricted the cameras’ use.


More than a dozen other states are considering legislation to curb similar data collection and storage.


“It’s one thing to take a photo,” Weiler told AP. “It’s another to take photos every 80th of a millisecond, and then store that data [so] you can later be identified by.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

License-Reader Firm Says New Law Curbs Free Speech (by Jack Gillum, Associated Press)

License Plate Readers Collect Data on Millions of Americans (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Police Use License Plate Scanners to Profile Drivers in Private Database (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)


Leave a comment