The Era of License Plate Tracking
No matter how fast you drive, you can't escape traffic cameras photographing your car's license plates -- and entering that information into a database that police can access anytime.
Our growing reliance on mobile technology leaves a digital trail of crumbs, representing our interests, habits, purchases and even our comings and goings. Seemingly private searches, communications and even locations are being monitored at an increasing rate, creating a virtual fingerprint of our digital lives.
Even our license plates are up for grabs -- many people don't realize law enforcement is photographing the license plate affixed to your car, collecting data about your driving habits during the course of a regular day.
Average citizens -- not just those under investigation -- are increasingly subject to this type of monitoring, a practice police pursue under the name of public safety.
Camera-equipped cars and infrastructure photographing people's license plates can be unnerving, especially considered with similar digital crumbs like cellphone data, online searches, and social media comments. These bits of info are mined and stored in vast databases.
Privacy advocates are ramping up scrutiny to get details about these programs, pressuring law enforcement to explain their usage and seeking legal guidelines to govern the practice.
What's Happening: For the past few years, municipalities across the nation have been rolling-out automated license plate readers, or LPRs, often with federal funding. The LPRs are mounted on cars and in fixed locations like intersections and main roads to keep an eye on cars that travel within their jurisdictions, logging license plates, dates, times, and locations of all cars. With their sleek cylindrical design, these silent recording devices look similar to a surveillance camera or a speed camera.
Some LPRs can read 60 license plates per second and match the collected data against a list of wanted vehicles or stolen cars. This effective way to catch wrongdoers is increasingly becoming a "go-to" tool for law enforcement.
The Wall Street Journal's Julia Angwin and Jennifer Valentino-Devries report as surveillance costs and capabilities increase, law enforcement use federal funding to purchase LPRs for public safety.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security distributed more than $50 million in federal grants to law-enforcement agencies -- ranging from sprawling Los Angeles to little Crisp County, Ga., which has a population under 25,000 -- for automated license-plate recognition systems.
The information captured is considerable. The WSJ obtained two years' worth of plate information from the Riverside County Sheriff's Department in California ending in August of this year, revealing the sheriff's cameras captured about 6 million license-plate scans.
The sheriff's 49 camera-equipped vehicles scanned about 2 million unique plates. Less than one percent of those were tracked extensively, according to the article, sometimes "hundreds of times, and occasionally thousands."
What's Really Happening: LPRs can help law enforcement serve and protect citizens in a cost-effective manner, but they, as well as law enforcement's other digital tools, do so at the expense of privacy.
In the analog world, police generally need your consent or a warrant to search your possessions in compliance with the Fourth Amendment Search and Seizure provisions, but the parameters in the digital realm are proving more fluid.
License-plate databases contain revealing information about people's locations, often holding years of information -- but it isn't necessarily accurate. For example, what about the plates, like those belonging to the man driving to the hospital to visit his sick mother, that aren't a match? Those are still kept in law enforcement databases for months or even years at a time, since there aren't universal standards governing how long data can or should be retained.
A few states do have guidelines for using the scanners. New Hampshire bans them and Maine requires data to be purged after 21 days unless it is part of an investigation. New Jersey requires officers to have "specific and articulable facts" of "possible criminal or terrorist activity" before looking up a car owner.
Police can generally use LPRs without a judge's approval, whereas they typically need a court order to install GPS trackers on people's cars or to track people's location via cellphone, though the issue is still in contention.
For instance, in an ongoing case before the nation's highest court, defense lawyers maintain that if law enforcement wants to use GPS devices to track suspects, they need get a warrant. Then, this fall, the government's U.S. solicitor general argued there are no constitutional limits to the government's ability to track people's movements in public, pointing out the car was followed on public streets.
Those in favor of LPRs point out that same fact. They maintain the public has no reasonable expectation of privacy and authorities can obtain documents detailing a person's movements without a probable-cause warrant.
Law enforcement's use of increasingly invasive technological tools, and the ability of authorities to obtain information without warrants, is surprising to many and fueling privacy advocates to mobilize.
What's Next: The WSJ estimates that data about a typical American is collected in "more than 20 different ways during everyday activities," and public safety agencies are jumping aboard.
The New York Police Department created a taskforce to scour social media like Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger last year, responding to the criminals' growing use of these sites to plan and celebrate illegal exploits. According to LexisNexis Risk Solution's recent survey of federal state and local law enforcement, four out of five officials used social media to gather intelligence during investigations.
But it is unclear what, if any, kind of training program the city has implemented with their social media unit. Eighty percent of law enforcement who report their social media mining skills are self-taught. Privacy advocates are concerned this same pattern applies to LPRs.
The 1994 Driver's Privacy Protection Act limits public access to the DMV's information but does provide car owners' names and addresses to government agencies, police, private investigators, insurers, researchers, private toll operators and, in some states, journalists.
Considering the length of time this technology has been available, which dates back to 2007 for some municipalities, the lack of policies covering it is alarming. More disconcerting than the license-plate tracking is its storage, since there are no clear reasons why, or any firm assurances it is being protected.
Privacy advocates maintain the sheer volume and the possibility of abuse requires closer inspection. This summer, the American Civil Liberties Union and its affiliates sent requests to local police departments and state agencies across 38 states to request information on how LPRs are used.
The Takeaway: When the various agencies receiving the ACLU's requests didn't supply the requested information within the legal timeframe, the agency filed suit, asking a federal court in Massachusetts to compel offices like the FBI, Marshals Service, Drug enforcement Agency, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to comply.
The ACLU says it seeks clarity on long officials retain the data, whether different departments are pooling it in state, regional, and national databases and explanations of its purposes.
"The public deserves to know how federal law enforcement and transportation authorities are using tax dollars, not least when their use may threaten our privacy on the open road," the ACLU said in a blog post.
The ACLU is concerned that the unregulated tracking system can be used for broad surveillance on the public and not just those who are suspected of crimes and to see where particular cars were at times in the past.
In addition to watchdog groups, legislators are also concerned. This year California State Sen. Joe Simitian introduced legislation to limit retention of automatic plate-recognition records by private contractors to 60 days and require officers to have a warrant to access the data.
Sen. Simitian argued the police should have probable cause to get information about the location of people's cars. "Should a cop who thinks you're cute have access to your daily movements for the past 10 years without your knowledge or consent?" he asked in the WSJ article. "I think the answer to that question should be 'no.'"
Ultimately, private companies and law-enforcement agencies vehemently opposed the bill and Sen. Simitian didn't pursue the proposal further.
For their part, law enforcement, concerned with evidence to solve present and future cases, doesn't have a compelling reason to purge the data. The specter of the criminal who gets off because of purged data is a powerful motivation to keep everything, just in case. And residents who aren't doing anything wrong may be reluctant to stifle a crime fighting tool, especially one that is cost-effective.
But, until citizens' comfort level shifts or if privacy advocates are able uncover disturbing uses or possible abuses, the cameras will keep quiet tabs on where we go. Technology in a growing number of forms will continue to keep track of our activities, as we navigate a landscape under an eye in the sky that never blinks. ♦
Categories: In Brief