Our Automobile License Plates have Become Tracking Beacons

“[Automated license plate readers (ALPR)] are a combination of high-speed cameras and optical character recognition technology that can identify license plates and turn them into machine-readable text,” reports the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). “What makes ALPR so powerful is that drivers are required by law to install license plates on their vehicles. In essence, our license plates have become tracking beacons. After the plate data is collected, the ALPR systems upload the information to a central a database along with the time, date, and GPS coordinates. Cops can search these databases to see where drivers have traveled or to identify vehicles that visited certain locations. Police can also add license plates under suspicion to ‘hot lists,’ allowing for real-time alerts when a vehicle is spotted by an ALPR network.”

All this sounds innocuous. One would think the technology is being used only for law enforcement purposes. If you believe that, you probably are wrong. However, proof is difficult to find as the law enforcement agencies usually are reluctant to publicize their actions. We also can guess that law enforcement agencies probably are not the biggest source of such information sharing. Instead, suspicion exists that the manufacturers of the automated license plate readers collect, save, and possibly share far more information about your movements than does any single law enforcement agency, all without public oversight.

ALPR is a mass surveillance technology that spies on every driver on the road, and logs their location, regardless of whether they are suspected of being involved in a crime. In fact, as the California Supreme Court noted in a 2017 opinion, “The scans are conducted with an expectation that the vast majority of the data collected will prove irrelevant for law enforcement purposes.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and transparency non-profit MuckRock have filed more than a thousand public records requests, looking into how local police departments were trading away sensitive data on where you drive and park, picked up by their use of automated license plate recognition devices. They’ve just published the results of those requests, including looking at how hundreds of departments freely share that data with hundreds of other organizations (including many corporations and government agencies that have nothing to do with law enforcement) — often with no public oversight.

Explore the data yourself, or, if your town isn’t yet in their database, requests its information free on MuckRock and they’ll file a request for it.

Details may be found on the EFF web site at: https://www.eff.org/pages/automated-license-plate-reader-dataset.

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