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Security & privacy

License plate scanners are coming to more cities – Here’s what info they can collect in the wrong hands

When police take cover on city roads checking for speedsters, they often have technology that instantly reads back a vehicle’s license plate. Through this, they can get detailed information on the driver and check for warrants. Tap or click here for how digital license plates are packed with many tracking sensors.

But as license plate scanners evolve, they have become more available to the public. This naturally creates a privacy issue, as seemingly ordinary citizens can keep track of anyone’s car.

Read on to find out what data they collect and why you should be worried.

Here’s the backstory

The technical term for the devices is Automated License Plate Recognition (ALPR), and you’ll often see them on street poles or mounted to police patrol vehicles.

The primary law enforcement usage is quickly scanning a car’s license plate and recording the time, date and location. From there, police use the data to track down the owner or to see if there are any outstanding warrants.

Police in Fort Worth, Texas, even use scanning technology to catch people setting off fireworks within city limits. A team monitors security cameras and ALPR devices from the city’s real-time crime center. 

The Houston police department has been using ALPR for some years, and a 2016 YouTube video explains that officers use the mounted cameras while on patrol. When the system detects a stolen or wanted vehicle, it alerts the officer in less than a second.  

Why are ALPR devices a problem?

For the most part, police use the technology to find stolen vehicles. But before that can happen, they must scan every car. So every time an officer drives through the neighborhood, it checks every car’s plate, records the numbers, location, date and takes a picture. 

Depending on the police department’s policy, the data is stored from a few seconds to a couple of years. It wouldn’t be so bad if the data stayed within the police network, but some private third-party vendors collect this information, too. And the police regularly contract these companies to handle the data. 

Some of the data ALPRs can capture include:

  • License plate information
  • Vehicle make and model

When combined with security cameras, even more information can be captured, including:

  • Pictures of drivers and passengers
  • Driving habits and regular destinations
  • Immediate surroundings
  • Bumper stickers

Managing Director of the Liberty & National Security program at the Brennan Center for Justice, Rachel Levinson-Waldman, recently said there are genuine concerns about how these devices intrude on privacy. 

“Police don’t need a warrant to obtain this kind of information. If you combine this license plate data with other information (such as cellphone tracking), it becomes really dangerous to have that license plate reader data in hand,” she explains.

The controversial technology formed the basis of a Vice investigation that found that a little-known company called Flock lets police officers track cars (and specific people) outside their jurisdictions.

Through a program called TALON, “the cameras can automatically record when a ‘non-resident’ vehicle drives into a community, and alert police to cars on a hotlist,” Vice’s Motherboard explains.

What you can do about it

The TALON system is used nationwide, and more than 500 police departments in 1,000 cities have access to these cameras. It works so fast that it can deliver 500 million scans a month. Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do about it.

As Levinson-Waldman explains, “the Supreme Court has held pretty clearly that because vehicles on public roads could be seen by any member of the public, there’s just no expectation of privacy in the context of license plates.”

If ALPR devices become more widespread, the government might need to establish regulations to protect its citizens’ privacy.

Keep reading

License plate readers track your movements – and now they’re going up nationwide

Your license plate may be tracked in a massive surveillance database

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