Automatic License Plate Readers


According to a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), police departments across the United States have adopted the use of automatic license plate readers (ALPRs). The police departments use these ALPRs to store information about people’s movements and locations in databases without the people’s knowledge.

The report revealed that police departments are storing people’s location information from their license plate date for several years, with indefinite termination—people many of whom have never been accused of a crime. The ACLU’s report says that, of every million license plates read in Maryland, only 47 were linked to serious crimes.

“As is often the case with surveillance technology, there are unobjectionable—even beneficial—uses of license plate readers. We don’t object when they’re used to identify people who are driving stolen cars or are subject to an arrest warrant. But they should not become tools for tracking where each of us has driven,” said Catherine Crump, ACLU staff attorney.

Crump’s concern, as well as that of the ACLU, is how this amount of private information is being stored and processed. She recalls the recent headlines stories regarding the NSA’s surveillance, reminding us that our time period is one where mass surveillance is made possible by technological advances. Crump makes clear how important it is for us to learn how ALPR technology is being used, saying, “License plate readers are just one example of a disturbing phenomenon: The government is increasingly using new technology to collect information about all of us, all the time, and to store it forever—providing a complete record of our lives for it to access at will.”

Many have argued that ALPRs violate the Fourth Amendment. The courts’ interpretation will determine how law enforcement agencies can use ALPRs.

In April of 2013, a Congressional Research Service Report said that a majority of the reviewing federal circuit courts agreed that people have no reason to expect privacy regarding their license plate numbers. However, no federal court has addressed the use of ALPRs, rather than information and plate numbers collected by a human officer of the law.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor had strong opinions on the ALPRs’ long-term storage of locational information. She asked “whether people reasonably expect that their movements will be recorded and aggregated in a manner that enables the government to ascertain, more or less at will, their political and religious beliefs, sexual habits, and so on.”

Her question is a reminder that knowing someone’s location reveals more than their geographical position. One could easily infer someone else’s place of work, where their children go to school, what their habits and interests are, and so on, just from knowing where they drive.

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