Police Are Using License Plate Readers To Track Your Car’s Movements

Credit: Associated Press

Around the country, police are adopting the widespread use of automatic license plate readers, and storing photos with time and location records in databases that are not subject to judicial oversight. In California, the Center for Investigative Reporting reveals that this data collection is widespread, with multiple counties creating coordinated databases that enable more thorough police location tracking of everyone, regardless of whether they are suspected of a crime.

A computer security consultant who spoke with CIR requested records of his own police scans several years ago, and found that his county police had logged this information once a week on average. One photo shows him and his daughters in their driveway.

Expansion and funding of this collection has been led by anti-terrorist agencies. Last year in California, for example, a law enforcement intelligence-sharing center set up after 9/11 signed a $340,000 agreement with Palantir, a CIA-funded start-up that has denied alleged links to the recently uncovered NSA surveillance. And a New Jersey county recently purchased the license plate readers under a grant from the Department of Homeland Security. But information collected has been used to solve domestic crime and enforce small-time violations, including parking restrictions or motorists who run red lights. In New York City, police have used the readers to catch car thieves and identify motorists with open warrants.

Like other forms of location tracking, license plate readers pose obvious privacy concerns, which is why several states and jurisdictions have limited their use, with New Hampshire banning them entirely. And a recent report from the International Association of Chiefs of Police has said tracking driver locations could raise First Amendment questions, as it collects data about individuals’ activities, religious practices, and even political protests. But in places where legislative limits have not been set, police are expanding their use of the tactic. An investigation in Los Angeles found the city had already recorded 160 million “data points.” Attempts to pass a California law limiting retention of these records to 60 days failed, after law enforcement and businesses that profit from the technology resisted.

Courts have grappled recently with other surveillance tools, but license plate readers have not come under scrutiny. A major U.S. Supreme Court decision last term significantly limited police use of GPS devices, in holding that attaching one to a suspect’s car without a warrant and monitoring his activity for 28 days constituted a “search.” Police have since turned to other tactics, including cell tower data, as an alternative means of location-tracking, and lower court rulings have set varying limits on the practice. Just this term, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the collection and retention of DNA on every person arrested — not convicted — of a serious violent crime, as the four dissenting justices who expressed passionate disapproval reiterated, “the Fourth Amendment forbids searching a person for
evidence of a crime when there is no basis for believing the person is guilty of the crime or is in possession of incriminating evidence.” This alternative type of location surveillance, which may nor not be deemed a Fourth Amendment search, burdens not just arrestees, but everybody who drives a car.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU have filed lawsuits to gain access to the data.