License Plate Cameras

Without Warrants, License Plate Scanners Track Millions of Americans

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License-plate scanner
Vigilant Solutions

Courts are at least starting to rule that police need a warrant to attach a GPS tracking device to your car, even if the feds are fighting tooth and nail against that requirement. But that protection may be almost moot if the police can follow everybody's movements by tracking their license plates with roadside cameras and storing and linking the captured information. And, as I've written before, that's exactly what the police are doing, in an ad hoc, but increasingly networked and organized way. Now an Americans Civil Liberties Union report details how widespread the practice has become, and how the federal government encourages the adoption of license plate scanners as a matter of official policy.

The ACLU report, You Are Being Tracked: How License Plate Readers Are Being Used to Record Americans' Movements, includes a nice, real-world example of what license plate scanners can do, even at this early date.

The potential privacy harms discussed in this report are not merely theoretical. In August 2012, the Minneapolis Star Tribune published a map displaying the location, obtained via a public records request, of the 41 times that Mayor R.T. Rybak's car had been recorded by a license plate reader in the preceding year. The Star Tribune also reported that of the 805,000 plate scans made in June, less than one percent were hits. Yet for as long as the information was retained, the other 99 percent of scans were also vulnerable to the risk that they might be released, used by the police to track innocent people, or otherwise abused. The alarming fact that a law-abiding citizen's sensitive location history could be revealed so easily was not lost on this exposed mayor. In response to the Star Tribune's reporting, he directed the city's chief of police to recommend a new policy on data retention. We hope the findings of our report spur similar policy changes.

You can only hope that more politicians will share Mayor Rybak's concern over the ease with which the technology can track people's movements. If history is any guide, though, officials are more likely to see potential in the scenarios for abuse presented in the report. The ACLU points out that the scanners can be used to track political activists, whisteblowers and opponents to sitting politicians.

Almost three-quarters of police agencies surveyed in 2011 reported using license plate readers, and 85 percent of them planned to increase deployment of the technology. The scanners are subject to only those limitations that agencies may care to adopt, both in terms of application and the storage of gathered data, with some policies explicitly claiming, "reasonable suspicion or probable cause is not required."

In Maryland, which is rapidly becoming a true surveillance state, with conversations on buses routinely recorded, "three-quarters of Maryland's law enforcement agencies are networked into Maryland's state data fusion center, which collected more than 85 million license plate records in 2012 alone." For every one million plates read in Maryland, only 47 are associated with serious crimes.

Some agencies contacted by the ACLU do delete the data they collect after a set interval (immediately for the Ohio State Highway Patrol, if a capture isn't related to a case, 30 days for police in Tiburon, California). But Jersey City holds on to its data for five years and some agencies store captured license plates indefinitely.

Police departments have their own reasons for favoring technology that allows them to track people's movements, subject to few limitations, but the federal government actively pushes the use of license plate scanners. The Department of Homeland Security has handed out anywhere from tens of millions to "billions of dollars in grants," depending on the source, just to encourage the adoption of this technology.

Of course, federal agencies, including Customs and Border Protection and the DEA, are themselves enthusiastic users of license plate scanners.

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94 responses to “Without Warrants, License Plate Scanners Track Millions of Americans

  1. police need a warrant to attach a GPS tracking device to your car

    What about Auto Insurance Companies?

    1. Well, at least GEICO doesn’t have an army or prisons. But if the government uses them as a proxy (which I think they are doing) yeah, it’s the same thing.

  2. You can only hope that more politicians will share Mayor Rybak’s concern over the ease with which the technology can track people’s movements.

    Next up, legislation that requires data retention policies that delete the information on the movements of legislators and government leaders.

    1. They are already well protected

  3. OT, but only a little bit: link

    1. Yeah, I saw that in the am links. Pretty horrible if true.

      1. Cops….the same on both sides of the pond. Who knew?

  4. In August 2012, the Minneapolis Star Tribune published a map displaying the location, obtained via a public records request, of the 41 times that Mayor R.T. Rybak’s car had been recorded by a license plate reader in the preceding year.

    What frustrates me so much is that all of this overreaching by law enforcement will never be brought to light or challenged unless it effects a member of the damned political class. Nobody else’s civil rights concerns matter.

  5. Per my good buddy, who is a private investigator:

    “Once you step out of your house, you have no expectation of privacy. If cost isn’t considered in a hypothetical, but purely legality, a local police department could legally hire tens of thousands of people and pay them just to follow everyone in town all the time, noting the location of vehicles.”

    1. I understand the point, but it doesn’t make surveillance by ANPR any less disturbing, mostly because hiring that many stalkers would be infeasible to say the least.

    2. That’s a lot of creepy-ass-crackas.

    3. It’s not a question of expectation of privacy so much, JJ, but an expectation of not being tracked and having that tracking information be out there. I know it isn’t a big difference, but it is one.

      Also, you are a buffoon.

      1. If you have no expectation of privacy, then there can be no opposition to being tracked in public.

        1. i.e. the very basis of not wanting to be tracked, is the idea that where you go is your own business…and there’s a word for that. Privacy.

          *not that I agree with any of this, but it is a legally valid argument. There’s lots of shit that’s legal, but still awful as hell.

          1. Legal according to whom?

            Is there any support for the proposition that the king’s men can track you, without your consent, at your expense, in the Declaration of Independence or the federal constitution or the constitution of any baby leviathans?

            Who says that the sum of your privacy rights are limited to 4th amendment?

            1. Who says that the sum of your privacy rights are limited to 4th amendment?

              Who else? Men with guns and badges.

          2. It’s one thing to step outside and expect privacy; that’s absurd. You’re out in public. People will see you, talk to you, etc. Someone might even take a picture of you.

            But having glimpses of you, through (usually) state-run cameras, be stored indefinitely is another matter. It’s primarily the “state-run” that I have the most problem with. When celebrities leave their houses they have no expectation of privacy and are actually potentially tracked by the paparazzi. However, that’s some douchebag photographer doing it, and not the organized might of the state.

            1. Oh I’m with you, don’t get me wrong. I’m just talk strict legality here.

            2. Organized?

      2. The reasonable expectation of privacy doctrine is totalitarian twaddle.

        One does not lose his right to be left alone just because one enters the outside world once one leaves one’s castle.

        Privacy is not cabined by the distorted 4th amendment jurisprudence of the state’s judges.

        1. One does not lose his right to be left alone just because one enters the outside world once one leaves one’s castle.

          Unfortunately many men with guns, and with the enthusiastic support of most of your fellows, completely disagree with you.

          1. Yes, the men with guns and badges cheered on by Clovers.

            1. What’s a Clover?

              1. Eric Peters frequently writes about them on his blog. His site is linked at LewRockwell.

                Mr. Peters, like me, is an anarchist who reviews new cars and motorcycles. He also writes about those things.

                Anyways, he is the first person I recall using the term. Basically, a clover is a person who:

                (1) Engages in statolatry- loves to wave the flag, wear flag pins, openly weeps during the national anthem, god bless America and fly overs.

                (2) Cop lovers – they would love to suck dun;hy’s dick

                (3) Sees something and says something

                (4) would turn in their best buddy after discovering he sells weed.

                (5) all traffic laws are good.

                Often, the term clovers is applied to people who drive below the speed limit in the left lane(s) and who do not pass the farm tractor chugging along at 6 mph on a two yellow line road notwithstanding the fact that he is holding everybody else up who is behind him.

                1. So it’s what we’re all taught in school to be the perfect citizen and an example to emulate?

                  1. If it is a government school, yes.

                    A clover would criticize you if you expressed outrage at a TSA agent strip searching a wheelchair bound grannie.

                    A clover could not possibly conceive of life without the state.

                    A clover could not possibly conceive of roads being built by private enterprise.

                    1. Sounds like a new word for statist. Am I missing something?

                2. Well I’ll be damned, on urban dictionary and all: clover.

    4. “Once you step out of your house, you have no expectation of privacy. If cost isn’t considered in a hypothetical, but purely legality, a local police department could legally hire tens of thousands of people and pay them just to follow everyone in town all the time, noting the location of vehicles.”

      Yeah. For sure. And that’s precisely what makes this all bullshit.

      Our entire understanding of reasonable expectations of privacy is based in common law, and developed over centuries of living in a world where it would have been absolutely prohibitively expensive to do something like this. That means it is baked in to our reasonable expectation of privacy that, “Since it’s impossible for the state to really afford to send a guy following me around everywhere, they won’t know where I am all the time whenever I leave my house.” If it had always been so low-cost to surveil people like this, I seriously believe the common law would have been different and we would have different legal standards today.

      1. NOBODY GIVES A SHIT WHAT YOU BELIEVE NIKKI GROWNUPS ARE HAVING A CONVERSATION.

        So, read any good books lately?

        1. I have been on a mini Muriel Spark kick as I prepare to re-read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, so yes. But someone has got me reading ginormous high fantasy novels that are taking up all my time. Damn you, Epi and GRRM!

          1. Uh, GRRM is NOT high fantasy. It’s specifically low fantasy. You want high fantasy, read The Wheel of Time saga. People literally accidentally fart magic, there’s so much fucking magic around everywhere.

            1. Trap: successful!

              Fucking nerds.

              1. Hmm, what’s more likely: that I fell into an insidiously hidden trap set by a woman, or that the woman in question didn’t understand the distinction between high and low fantasy.

                It’s all been downhill since we let you have the vote.

                1. Hmm, what’s more likely: that I fell into an insidiously hidden trap set by a woman, or that the woman in question didn’t understand the distinction between high and low fantasy.

                  But JJ, you know I am a lit enthusiast, and that I therefore spend a ton of time reading genre enthusiasts parse out their favorite things to absurd degrees. Anything I had called GRRM would have been wrong. It was the perfect trap!

                  1. (And exactly this dumbass debate is going on now!)

                  2. You mean like Epi below?

                    And I don’t consider GRRM to be fantasy. I consider him to be “historically inspired fiction with some supernatural elements included”, basically his own category.

            2. JJ, what the hell is wrong with you, suggesting to someone that they read WoT? What kind of sociopathic monster are you?

              1. I’ve got a friend who swears he likes it better than ASOIAF. I know, I know.

                And Nikki spends so much time reading super serious things, she needs to ingest some mind-rot like WoT to balance it all out.

                1. Remember Pug?

                  1. Riftwar Saga Pug?

                    1. YES RIFTWAR PUG.
                      LATER MILAMBER

                  2. NO. I have almost successfully purged my memory of the characters, their names, the stupid shit they kept doing, and the general storyline. I won’t have you ruining that for me!

            3. I would’ve thought ‘high fantasy’ would be some semi-realistic epic set in a pseudo-past world and ‘low-fantasy’ to incorporate all the magic and prancing elves crap.

              1. In any case the crappiest “Warhammer” book out-does that shit.

                Check out “goetrek and Felix” or, well, anything by Dan Abnett.

                1. Funny you mention that; I just finished the Sigmar and Nagash omnibuses.

                  And of course they’re high fantasy – the Warhammer world is literally soaking in magic. In fact, I think that may have been where I first heard those terms; on forums where people were talking about playing “low fantasy” armies, where you can’t have a wizard higher than lvl 1, no monsters, etc.

                  1. I didn’t like the Sigmar/Nagash series. Both it and the early imperial prequels for 40K.

              2. Low fantasy = low amounts of fantasy.

                High fantasy = high amounts of fantasy.

                At least that’s how I’ve seen the terms used in book discussions.

                1. The term “high fantasy” was invented in the 1960’s when people first started describing The Lord of the Rings to their friends. The common response was, “are you high?” and the moniker stuck.

                2. I thought high fantasy was big, epic works that generally are considered good, like LOTR or the Shannara series. Basically, LOTR and all its clones.

                  Low fantasy would be more like classic sword-and-sorcery pulp novels and the like.

                  And I don’t consider GRRM to be fantasy. I consider him to be “historically inspired fiction with some supernatural elements included”, basically his own category.

                3. Low fantasy = low amounts of fantasy.
                  High fantasy = high amounts of fantasy.

                  Which one would this thread be?

                  1. what would the Piers Anthony Fantasy be called?

                    1. Dumbass fantasy.

                    2. Hey! I loved Piers Anthony when I was a tweenager! Oh… right.

                    3. That’s because they’re like reading romance novels but not as embarrassing.

                    4. You shut your whore mouth about Piers Anthony.

                      Honestly Epi, you wouldn’t know good fantasy if it bit you on one of your asses.

                    5. The ‘lot’s of sex with underage girls and weird aliens’ genre of fantasy?

      2. Yes, but in 1776, the common law was ostensibly tossed aside where it served the king and defeated liberty.

    5. Just another reason to get rid of license plates.

  6. I think a reasoned and practical solution to this problem is not to prohibit government from using license plate trackers but instead, to not require the use of license plates.

    There is no reason to require a license plate on a car that can not also be used to require *you* to display an identifier in public.

    1. Driving isn’t a right, like self-ownership is. You don’t have to have a license plate, as long as you never drive the vehicle. That’s the distinction they make.

      1. Obamacare completely demolishes your argument.

        1. Well I suppose if they only made you pay a tax for NOT wearing the identification, then it’s totally kosher!

          1. And then require you to wear a tag showing that you’ve paid the tax or you get arrested.

      2. Who says driving isn’t a r………….

        I know, guns and badges.

      3. That’s not the entire argument but it’s party of it. The theory is that since the government owns the ROADZ, you need their permission to utilize them. And the only way you’ll get that permission is with a license and insurance.

        Dance, monkey! Dance for your ROADZ!

        1. More fuel for the ‘privatize roads’ bonfire.

      4. Driving isn’t a right,

        More government propaganda.

  7. Would it be feasible to hack this repository of data? Based on the data, could a driver’s routine movements be tracked? If I wanted to track someone for the purpose of doing them harm, would this database give me useful information?

    1. Yes, conceivably. I mean, it’s meant for tracking people, so obviously you could do nefarious tracking as well, if you could get access. And we all know how good the government’s security is.

      1. You mean you don’t trust the high-level computer security of Tiburon, California?

    2. Yes, or the data could be spoofed.

      “Reverend Lovejoy I am disappointed a by your opposition to my new proposal to tax all church earnings at 90%, and I see that you’ve spent a lot of time in the parking lot of the local sex shop”

      “why I never!”

      “Friend Computer is never wrong.”

    3. Anonymous Coward| 7.17.13 @ 7:57PM |#
      “Would it be feasible to hack this repository of data?”

      Joke?
      Who was it that made the distinction between hacked and ‘dumbassed’ (or some such)?
      See what Snowden did with the NSA? The NSA got ‘dumbassed’, they didn’t get hacked. No one had to do the tech; they figured out how to have the code handed to them.
      Example: In China, I asked the guide how in hell the Mongols ever breached the Great Wall. He said: “Easy; they bribed someone”.

      1. Snowden did the oldest hacking trick of them all – social engineering.

  8. Then we need to track the cops. This is a non-issue, set up a series of blinds set at 92 degrees perpendicular to your plate, that way the cameras cannot record them.If you are really THAT concerned, set up a strobe light over your plate at a low frequency, around 1000/sec, this will blind the cameras.

    1. Aaaand that’s already pretty much illegal in most of the country.

      1. It’s only illegal if you get caught! *lol*

    2. Idea: I wonder if the cameras pick up IR?

      If they do, some IR LEDs around your plate would do wonders, and be invisible to the naked eye (maybe not a camera in a cop car, though).

      To see the effect, use the camera app on your phone, point a remote control at the sensor, and press a button.

      1. Unless they have an IR filter installed on the camera, they will be highly sensitive to IR.

        As far as legality…your license plate is not visually obscured. An officer behind you will be able to read your plate just fine…it just won’t be able to be entered into a database automagically.

        This might also block out red light, speed trap, and tollway cameras too.

  9. Anyway, one can always screw up their optics, or disengage their power supplies. Why is everyone so worried?

  10. For every one million plates read in Maryland, only 47 are associated with serious crimes.

    The other 999,953 are associated with *potentially* serious crimes.

    1. They’re associated with pre-crime.

      1. I’m assuming they are not including stolen autos as a “serious crime”, because the ratio of stolen cars, to cars not stolen is MUCH larger than 47/1,000,000

        1. I would imagine that the ratio of cars stolen ‘but not chopped up and sold for parts’ would be less than 47/mil.

          Most of those stolen cars aren’t finding their way back onto the road in the same country in one piece.

  11. Being a non-celebrity, I can require a certain degree of privacy. you cannot take a picture of me and publish it without my consent. You cannot take a picture of my house, my car, my boat, my belongings, etc. without my consent. You cannot follow or track me without a lawful warrant from a judge that specifically states what you are tracking, at what time, for what duration, and it has to be a valid warrant that states that a crime may have been committed. Tracking by camera w/o abandon and w/o a duly recognized warrant is against the Constitution. The only rule that affects this is if there is reasonable suspicion that the person being tracked may have committed a crime or might be in the process of doing such; please reference the Travon Martin case. Driving down the road does not warrant reasonable cause. This applies to ascertaining a person’s/ car’s record if there is REASONABLE doubt that the focused individual may be perpetrating a crime (speeding is a good example). Any device that prevents police from committing illegal activities is therefore applicable to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

    1. “Tracking by camera w/o abandon and w/o a duly recognized warrant is against the Constitution”

      Obozo and Di Fi say: “Tough shit”.

    2. Uh, you’re completely wrong about your first sentence.

      I *can* take a picture of you, record you, take a picture of your house and publish *all* of them without your consent.

      If I couldn’t do that then news organizations would be operating on a greatly different model.

  12. Obozo and the Fi should have been thrown out the window with the bath water, as far as I am concerned.

  13. “Being a non-celebrity, I can require a certain degree of privacy. you cannot take a picture of me and publish it without my consent.”

    depends. If it’s “news” then journalists most definitely can. If it’s for entertainment, etc. purposes that is less often true, although usually you are still wrong. But news organization especially have the right to publish w/o consent. Your local and national news do it every day.

    ” You cannot take a picture of my house, my car, my boat, my belongings, etc. without my consent.”

    Again, wrong on the law. As long as the photographer doesn’t invade your private property to do so.

    ” You cannot follow or track me without a lawful warrant from a judge that specifically states what you are tracking, at what time, for what duration, and it has to be a valid warrant that states that a crime may have been committed. Tracking by camera w/o abandon and w/o a duly recognized warrant is against the Constitution. ”

    Again, false as a matter of law. If your spouse thinks you are cheating on her for example, she can follow, track you etc. or hire a private investigator to do so. An LEO can do the same, WITHIN reasonable limits, without reasonable suspicion.

  14. You are simply wrong on the law.

    THat’s tangential to the POLICY issues, which I have trouble with – the state (OR PRIVATE INDUSTRY) constantly taking pictures of people as they go about their daily grind.

    But ENTIRELY legal.

    See: Open view and Plain View doctrines. See also, again how media ROUTINELY films people and published w.o permission. Go watch your nightly news and you will see plenty of people whose images (and sometimes voice if they are yelling stuff) are broadcast without those persons giving permission.

    The media can publish a photo of a crowd outside a bar. They need not get permission from the people involved.

    1. As for LEO’s/the State, taking photos or film is not a seizure according to the courts (generally speaking), which is why traffic cameras, or cops videotaping crowds (as we did during WTO and N30) is legal.

      Even in my state, which recognizes a right to privacy in our equivalent to the 4th, it’s still legal.

  15. “Driving isn’t a right, like self-ownership is.”

    Correct.

    ” You don’t have to have a license plate, as long as you never drive the vehicle. That’s the distinction they make.”

    We get people call us all the time because of fender bender in the parking lot, one party not having license and/or insurance.

    We cannot cite for that. You don’t need either on private property.

    Driving *is* a privilege (on public roadway and in some states, roads/lots that give access to invitees or licensees), and considering you are hurling a potentially deadly weapon around when driving, that driving causes more carnage to the average innocent than any other activity, etc. the courts have recognized that it can be subject to heavy regulation, to include requiring license plates.

    If I see a car, I can run the license plate for drivers info, whether it’s stolen, etc. I cannot, for instance, trespass to get to see a license plate (LOTS of case law on this), and if I do, fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine kicks in.

  16. “Our entire understanding of reasonable expectations of privacy is based in common law, and developed over centuries of living in a world where it would have been absolutely prohibitively expensive to do something like this. That means it is baked in to our reasonable expectation of privacy that, “Since it’s impossible for the state to really afford to send a guy following me around everywhere, they won’t know where I am all the time whenever I leave my house.” If it had always been so low-cost to surveil people like this, I seriously believe the common law would have been different and we would have different legal standards today.”

    GOod point, but similar the ones anti-gunners make about how since modern gunz weren’t around when the 2nd was written, it shouldn’t apply to them. It’s actually a near exact analogy.

    As a way to fight this intel gathering/surveillance, some wonks over at Volokh.com have created/discussed/debates the “mosaic theory” of privacy, which COULD be used to challenge license plate cameras practice. It’s a good argument to counter this recording of license plates.

  17. “It’s not a question of expectation of privacy so much, JJ, but an expectation of not being tracked and having that tracking information be out there. I know it isn’t a big difference, but it is one”

    Imo, that IS a big difference. If a cop is riding behind you and “runs” your license plate for hits (stolen vehicle etc.), that doesn’t become part of a data set as to where you were driving from origin to destination, which is what can happen with the cameras if they are extensive enough.

    I think people also underplay the dangers of LITTLE BROTHER, iow private companies surveilling with cameras. It may not be as bad as when govt. does it, but it is still a concern in my mind.

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