Widespread license plate scanning presents an open road for abuse

Mon, 09/09/2013 - 5:09pm
Chris Warner, Executive Editor

“If you didn’t do anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.”

Well that’s good. But for those of us who are only human and occasionally make mistakes or sometimes do things that are nobody’s business but our own, please keep reading.

Fresh off the revelations about the NSA from Ed Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, the ACLU issued a very troubling report about local law enforcement’s use of license plate scanners ( We’ve all seen the cameras mounted on bridges or buildings or known of their presence in police cars. They can record the location of a moving or parked car, and the information can be used to aid a criminal investigation or perhaps find an abducted child. But with their ability to record vehicle location information and store it in a database, every movement of a suspicious car can be tracked – along with those of the millions of innocent, law-abiding drivers. I quietly hoped law enforcement was using the technology responsibly. But the report, “You Are Being Tracked…” shows that abuse is all but certain unless we demand accountability from officials immediately.

The overwhelming concerns are the data being collected from innocent citizens and the retention policies associated with this technology. The report uses statistics from Maryland as an example. For every million license “plate reads”, only 2,000 come back as “hits” (.02 percent), and only 47 of those hits involve serious crimes; the majority of the hits are mundane registration issues. Add to that the paucity of regulations pertaining to the amount of time these plate reads are stored (often years or indefinitely) and the untold entities with which all this is data being shared, plus the rapid proliferation of these devices, and you have a significant invasion of privacy on the habits and locations of almost every single driver. If you frequent the same locations at certain times, you’ve given authorities a pattern ready-made for, say, ex-spouses or stalkers in law enforcement, political rivals, rogue officials or anyone else with an agenda who may have access to the data.

The ACLU’s blog offers a thorough list of likely types of information license plate readers can potentially gather on everyone such as trips to political protests, houses of worship and gun ranges and doctor’s visits. Likely abuses would include “spying on protesters merely because they are exercising their constitutionally protected right to petition the government, or unofficial ones, like tracking an ex-spouse.” (

There’s a school of thought that would claim that drivers can’t expect privacy on public roads. But if the ACLU’s report is any indication, these scanners and the volumes of data they create will pretty much guarantee EVERY movement by EVERYONE will be known by, at least, the law enforcement community just in case we may do something wrong, which is beyond the critical mass of what anyone could ever imagine. At some point, the principle of a reasonable expectation of privacy even in public must intervene. We must decide – and fast – what is reasonable and tell city hall and the state house where the line in the sand is and back it up with laws that leave no ambiguity. As we have learned with the NSA and now local and state police initiatives, if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.


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