License Plate Readers Collect Data on Millions of Americans

Friday, July 19, 2013
(photo: PIPS Technology)

Driving an automobile in the U.S. can mean having your location tracked and logged by law enforcement and private business using surveillance cameras and databases routinely capturing license plate information.


According to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Americans’ vehicular movements can be captured and retained, and even sold for profit by businesses, such as repossession operations.


This Orwellian aspect of driving is little known by most individuals, but is growing nonetheless, thanks to millions of dollars in federal grant money to local governments.


License plate data is captured by small cameras mounted to police vehicles, on light poles, bridges, street signs and buildings, allowing police or others to know someone’s whereabouts down to the second, the ACLU says.


This information “is being placed into databases, and is sometimes pooled into regional sharing systems. As a result, enormous databases of motorists’ location information are being created. All too frequently, these data are retained permanently and shared widely with few or no restrictions on how they can be used,” the report states.


Meanwhile, the government has not established any uniform standard for how authorities can access the data. In the California town of Pittsburg, for example, police can analyze the database for “any routine patrol operation or criminal investigation,” and “reasonable suspicion or probable cause is not required,” the report says.


Furthermore, the civil liberties group warns that “these huge databases of plate information are not subject to any data security or privacy regulations governing license plate reader data.…These companies decide who can access license plate data and for what purposes.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Privacy Advocates Skeptical of Pilot Program Digital License for Plates (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

License Plate Readers Track You for Profit (by David Kravets, Wired)

Vehicle Records Taken By Law Enforcement Agencies Across America: ACLU (by Anne Flaherty and Calvin Woodward, Associated Press)

Police Documents on License Plate Scanners Reveal Mass Tracking (by Catherine Crump, American Civil Liberties Union)

You Are Being Tracked (American Civil Liberties Union) (pdf)

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

License Plate Tracking Spreads beyond Criminal Suspects (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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