This month the ACLU has launched a nationwide effort to demand information from police departments and other authorities about automatic license plate readers (ALPRs), arguing that they violate privacy.
Are ALPRs yet another eye of Big Brother or is the ACLU’s freedom of information request much ado about nothing?
“ALPRs are cameras mounted on stationary objects (telephone poles, the underside of bridges, etc.) or on patrol cars,” writes the ACLU. “The cameras snap a photograph of every license plate that passes them by – capturing information on up to thousands of cars per minute. The devices convert each license plate number into machine-readable text and check them against agency-selected databases or manually-entered license plate numbers, providing an alert to a patrol officer whenever a match or ‘hit’ appears.”
As with drone technology, no longer do the watchmen have to try to be everywhere at once—they are everywhere at once.
According to the ACLU, “When the ALPR system captures an image of a car, it also meta-tags each file with the GPS location and the time and date showing where and when the photograph was snapped.” The ACLU notes that often And often, the photograph of the license plate is also stored in a database. “The system gathers this information on every car it comes in contact with, not simply those to which some flag or ‘hit’ was attached.”
Law enforcement, however, are not simply using this for finding stolen vehicles or find individuals without outstanding warrants, but to build an immense database that can be shared widely. “ The biggest problem with ALPR systems is the creation of databases with location information on every motorist who encounters the system, not just those whom the government suspects of criminal activity,” notes the ACLU.
If the information is deleted instead of indefinitely stored, that would be preferred, but the ACLU has reason to believe this is the exception not the rule. “Only two states have passed legislation barring the retention of ‘non-hit’ plate data for extended periods. On the other hand, we know for certain that some departments are eagerly engaging in this surreptitious data collection.”
ALPRs can collect data and images in any number of places that people might visit or regularly frequent. For instance, such data could be used to keep tabs on activists—to create a location awareness, as it were, that would not be limited by jurisdiction.
If Americans remain ignorant of the true extent of ALPR awareness, then government’s law enforcement agencies will continue expanding the gaze of Big Brother.