By Rachael Mason
You’re being followed. High speeds and quick turns won’t shake the follower, because license plate readers are tracking your every move.
Municipalities across the country have invested in license plate monitors that keep track of every vehicle that crosses the city limits and, in some cases, mobile cameras that record the locations of each car spotted. The monitors can cost as much as $12,000 each, but the purchases are being supported with funds from the federal government.
Known as automatic number plate recognition, automatic vehicle identification, or license plate recognition, the mass surveillance systems use cameras (which can be mounted on poles or part of a law enforcement vehicle) and optical character recognition to read the characters that appear on license plates. The information is tagged with GPS coordinates, as well as the date and time.
Commonly used by law enforcement agencies and on toll roads, the systems can make sure that a driver pays the right fee at a toll booth or is approved to enter a gated community. The license plate numbers collected can also help find stolen cars or vehicles driven by criminals and suspects.
The American Civil Liberties Union sees the license plate readers as a major threat to American privacy. Millions and millions of license plate numbers, belonging to ordinary law-abiding citizens, are being collected and stored. The information can be used to retroactively track down people’s locations, which can include sensitive details about their lives, including visits to doctor’s offices, 12-step groups, and churches, according to a report put together by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Right now, only New Hampshire and Maine have passed state laws to keep this data from being stored indefinitely.
“Good intentioned government officials and duty bound police officers could sometimes be led astray by the dazzling new technological advances now readily at their fingertips,” says attorney Martin Sweet of legal information website THELAW.TV.
There appears to be no limit to how the collected license plate data can be used. The Drug Enforcement Administration has plans to build a nationwide system to monitor highways, while New Jersey has approved keeping license plate data for as many as five years.
In February 2012, the New York City Police Department was found to have used license plate readers to keep records of all cars parked near mosques, according to the Huffington Post. Data collected about the license plates at the Mexico and Canada border crossings is not only being used by federal agencies, but has also been shared a nonprofit agency tied to private insurance companies, reported Forbes.
“Technological innovation is often a great thing. But we also must be vigilant to ensure that our own right to privacy and freedom from unreasonable searches does not vanish into the ether,” says Sweet.
Business owners have also started to discover how they can use this collected data. In August 2012 in Minneapolis, a local car dealer used the police department’s records of license plate numbers to track down a customer who owed him money, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The information collected by the city police department’s ten cameras is considered public record, so the car dealer requested information about four vehicles whose owners had stopped making payments. After realizing one of the cars had been spotted at the same place seven times, the dealer found it and repossessed it, the Star Tribune reported.
How does your city and state use license plate monitoring? In July 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union requested information about the use of the systems from 38 states and Washington, D.C. and put together a map detailing its requests.