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The recent events surrounding Edward Snowden and the NSA surveillance program are bringing domestic law enforcement surveillance into the public consciousness. In particular, the implications of Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs), used by law enforcement agencies all over the country, are being reevaluated.
The recently implemented technology consists of a camera linked to a processing unit that uses algorithms to separate the numbers and letters of a vehicle’s license plate from the surrounding image. Once a plate is scanned, it is saved to a database along with GPS coordinates, the date and time, and a photo of the vehicle at the time it was scanned. Available in sizes as small as a paperback novel, these units can be mounted next to red light cameras, positioned at key points of interest, or even installed on police cruisers for mobile use.
An ALPR mounted on a police cruiser can scan up to 1,800 license plates per minute–while traveling at speeds of up to 120 miles per hour or more. An average officer can scan over 14,000 plates in a single shift. The boon to law enforcement is obvious: by cross-referencing scanned plates with police databases, officers can track down stolen vehicles, find vehicles identified in an AMBER alert, or locate people with outstanding warrants, just by driving around. And the law enforcement community is catching on: in 2007, almost half [PDF] of large law enforcement agencies used ALPRs on a regular basis.
While the new technology clearly has advantages, controversy arises when a plate is scanned, cross-referenced, and comes up with nothing. If the data is then deleted or stored only for a short period of time, few would object. That, however, is not usually the case. An LA county has begun storing data for two years, regardless of whether the driver has done anything wrong. And some agencies are keeping the data indefinitely. While a simple scan may seem innocuous, this data could reveal a troubling amount of information about people who are not even suspected of committing a crime. Consider intimate details like visiting addiction counseling, doctor’s offices, activist groups, or cabarets. If there were a stationary camera along your daily commute, police would know which days you went into work late or stayed home sick. They could even position an ALPR in front of the parking garage of an event or rally and build a highly accurate guest list.
Police claim that ALPR systems are completely legal because they are scanning license plates in public and are no different from an officer recording license plate, time, and location information by hand. The ACLU and EFF disagree, and recently filed suit in California state court against two Los Angeles law enforcement agencies after they failed to respond to requests for information on how the agencies use ALPRs to track Americans’ movements. See the complaint here.
These readers may raise some constitutional issues. The Fourth Amendment protects you against searches only if you have a reasonable expectation of privacy. When you pull out of your garage, there is certainly no reasonable expectation that a license plate is private. However, there may still be a “reasonable expectation” that you will not be tracked everywhere you go. In his concurrence in United States v. Jones, 132 S.Ct. 945 (2012), Justice Alito wrote that “society’s expectation has been that law enforcement agents and others would not—and indeed, in the main, simply could not—secretly monitor and catalogue every single movement of an individual’s car for a very long period.”
According to a June 2012 story in LA Weekly, Los Angeles sheriff and police departments conduct approximately 22 scans for every one of the 7 million vehicles registered in LA County. With that much surveillance, this seemingly innocuous license plate reading is far more than an officer recording information by hand. And these privacy concerns haven’t gone unrecognized–Maine, New Jersey, and Virginia have limited the use of ALPRs, and New Hampshire has banned them outright.
At the very least, this new technology warrants regulation. Perhaps the answer is a specified time limit on stored data for people not suspected of committing a crime, or a warrant required to store data past a certain time frame. It remains to be seen whether law enforcement agencies can take advantage of this new crime-fighting tool without severely implicating privacy concerns.
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