License Plate Cameras

Should the Government Track Your Movements?

A battle over license-plate readers is brewing in Virginia.


If you are walking down a public street, should you expect people not to see you? Of course not. But suppose someone decides to follow you—and to make records noting the time and place of your movements. Is that the same thing as simply noticing you happen to be out and about? No. Most people would agree the second case differs from the first.

Yet a Fairfax judge unfortunately failed to pick up on that distinction recently when he ruled in favor of the county's use of license plate readers. Fairfax's police department uses automated license plate readers that can scan 3,600 plates per minute. The county compares the plates to a hot list of stolen cars and other vehicles that might have been involved in a crime. It also stores the image of every plate, along with the date, time and location of each plate recording, for 364 days.

Three years ago Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) issued an opinion informing law enforcement agencies around the state that such activity is impermissible. It's one thing to use the cameras to hunt down a specific vehicle. It's another thing entirely to hoover up data about countless ordinary citizens going about their daily business, and then keep it indefinitely. The use of license-plate readers during an immediate threat to public safety is acceptable, Cuccinelli said, but their passive use during routine patrols is not, and neither is the practice of storing data from them. The need for collecting the information should be established before they are used, he wrote.

Some police departments took heed of Cuccinelli's opinion. Others ignored the AG's advice completely. Fairfax was one of them. Harrison Neal, a resident whose license plate showed up in the county's database, challenged the county's policy on privacy grounds. Last month Fairfax Circuit Court judge Robert Smith issued a summary judgment in the county's favor. The Virginia Supreme Court will soon decide whether to review the matter. It certainly should.

Smith's reasoning is straightforward: License plates are not personal information. Plate numbers are not listed among other forms of personal data in the state's Government Data Collection and Dissemination Act. What's more, while other forms of information listed in the act—such as Social Security numbers—refer back to an individual, "a license plate number leads directly to a motor vehicle and nothing more." Other government data can tell you who owns the vehicle, but "a license plate does not tell the researcher where the person is, what the person is doing, or anything else about the person."

Well now. If that is true, then it negates the whole point of using license-plate readers. Such readers apparently would be worthless, except for once in a long while when they note the recent location of a stolen car. In cost-benefit terms, they would seem like a colossal waste, because LPRs cost around $20,000—each.

The police seem to agree that license-plate readers collect personal information, too. As Arlington Police Chief Douglas Scott said in response to Cuccinelli's advisory, "if we were limited by the Attorney General's opinion, (LPRs) wouldn't be worth the investment. To simply use (them) only for a stolen-auto hit … kind of defeats the investigative purpose and the opportunity to have something like that."

Indeed. License plate readers have an "investigative purpose" precisely because they do not simply note license plates and nothing more. They also record location in time and space. And since most people usually drive their own cars, that means LPRs enable the government to track and record a person's movements. The vast majority of the time, agencies do so without any apparent justification. In one comparable case in California, more than 99 percent of the plates recorded in a database belonged to vehicles unconnected to any crime.

License plate readers that provided the authorities with no personal information would be pointless, because cars don't commit crimes; only people do. So one of two things seems to be true about license plate readers. Either they do not record any personal information, in which case they are worthless as a crime-fighting tool. Or they do record personal information—about tens of thousands of people who are not criminals, without any reasonable grounds for suspicion.

In short, they are either useless or they are an invasion of privacy. Which is it?

NEXT: Alexa. Please Don't Answer Police Questions Without a Warrant

License Plate Cameras Virginia Surveillance Privacy

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132 responses to “Should the Government Track Your Movements?

  1. Harrison Neal, a resident whose license plate showed up in the county’s database, challenged the county’s policy on privacy grounds.

    Problem citizen. *Waaaaaa* Problem citizen.

    1. This one needs re-education now, it’s the only solution.

  2. The answer is No.

    Do I need to bother to read the article?

    1. GOML!,

      I recommend at least scanning the article and the Washington Post article (Hinkle for which priovided a link), especially if you live in Virginia.

      However, I do not recommend reading all of the comments for the latter article. Some of them are definitely not on the same level as you are.

  3. All information held by the government will at some point be misused. Even if the government is honest and has and enforces rules about its misuse, misuse is inevitable because all rules eventually are broken. If rules were not broken, there would be no reason to have them. And once the rules are broken, there is no fixing it. I don’t care if you shoot the government employee who misuses the information, you can’t go back and undo the damage done to someone’s privacy and rights.

    Some information has to be collected and stored by the government. There is just no way around it. That, however, is a necessary evil not a good. So the government should only be allowed to collect information that is essential to its functioning. Any further collection is just an abuse of the public. Its really that simple.

    1. Some information has to be collected and stored by the government.

      I agree with everything you said and even so, I bet the amount of some information I think HAS to be collected is much less than the amount you think HAS to be collected.

      But still, dead on right.

      1. I work in information and privacy law and a few other things. The amount of unnecessary information collected and stored by the government is appalling.

        The thing most people don’t understand is that the privacy act is largely useless. Yes, it protects your information once it is collected by the government but it does virtually nothing to stop the government from collecting and storing the information in the first place. The government can collect any publicly available information it wants. It just has to publish a record of it doing so in the federal register. That is it. A proper privacy act would restrict the amount and nature of the information the government collects in the first place. The current privacy act does no such thing.

        1. In theory, a person should be able to be born, go to school, work, get married, have kids, and die without any information on them ever entering a government database.

          The census would be the only constitutional exception, and even that is just X people are living here.

          1. Or have a government identification document.

          2. Somewhat agree, although it is impossible to enforce property rights without some kind of trusted third-party record keeping.

            The ONLY purpose of the license scanner is to have an automated system go through and look for expired plates because the resulting ticket adds to the bottom line. Naturally, the compulsive liars that become government officials never tell the truth about the purpose of the system except in private chambers.

            1. True, that might be the minimal need.

              I said that I agreed that some information does not to be collected.

              And, of course, hypothetical man could rent so that he doesn’t end up in the database, but his landlord would.

          3. The census would be the only constitutional exception

            I’ve been waiting to be busted by the Census Bureau. The last two times I’ve completed a census. I completed the section asking how many people lived at my address. I left everything else blank. The first time I referred them to Article 1 Section 2.

            1. You should have returned it claiming either zero or negative residents.

              1. Now that would be awesome. Maybe the square root of -1.

      2. The problem is that over the last 100 years or so, our elected officials have effectively whittled away at the Constitution and it’s gotten to the point now that it’s on critical life support and nearly dead. Today there are very few people in positions of power and authority in this country who believe that you have any right to privacy at all. The individual has been replaced by the collective. This is indeed the path to tyranny.

  4. Nothing could possibly go wrong. The government should absolutely know where you are every minute of the day, 365 days a year, what you’re wearing, what you buy, where you buy it, how much sodium is in your home, how much toilet paper you used, what the temperature is inside your home, who visits you and when, what time you go to bed, how much coffee you consume, how much alcohol, how many calories, what you watch on TV, what you been looking at on the internet, who you called on the phone, who called you… How can our benevolent government take care of us if they don’t have the relevant information?

    Shut up, you crazed glibertarians, if you’re not doing anything wrong…

    1. This sort of thing represents a complete reversal of the paradigm that governs a free society and just government. In a free society and a just government, the default answer is that the government doesn’t have the right to know something and can only collect information unless it has a good reason to do so. This flips that on its head and says the government has a right to know whatever it wants and it is up to the public to give a good reason why it should not. And that truly is the road to slavery.

      1. I think your sarcasm filter has crashed. Have you tried turning it off and on?

        1. I’m sure he knew Hyperion was being sarcastic.

          Sadly, there are many who would say the same thing and be completely serious about it.

          1. That is exactly what I meant.

    2. I do lots that is wrong. What about me?

  5. Although I’m an admitted tech advocate and futurist, some futurists, like Peter Diamandis, really get on my nerves. No, I do not want to be connected to you and a million of your loony bin friends in the cloud to share every minutia of data and even my thoughts. Fuck off, you creepy fucks. A little bit of cynicism and non-trust is a very good thing.

    1. Imagine a Facebook in your head that’s always on. Won’t that be fun?

      1. That would be awesome! Can we connect it to a tiny laser in you brain, so we can aneurysm people who commit badthink??

        /Social media safety council

        1. No need. The re-education firmware has already been written. Wrongthink will be impossible.

      2. thanks for reminding me…

        Note to self: look up plans for home made EMP canon.

  6. If you’re not doing anything, you have nothing to worry about. Worrying is doing something, and a veeerrry suspicious something at that. Knock that shit off. Just sit there, don’t make a sound or a movement, quit breathing and blinking and you’ll be fine.

    1. according to, well, someone someplace – I’m always doing something wrong. It’s human nature.

  7. How can a person privately use a public road?

    1. stealth vehicle?

    2. again, the distinction is between privacy and anonymity. If you’re not committing a crime, you have every right to expect to remain anonymous to those who don’t know you, even though your actions are committed in public.

      1. It’s kind of interesting that nobody is making the case for private roads.

        1. It is just assumed.

        2. Interestingly enough, if you use a private (toll) road, you are monitored to determine the fees you pay. You give consent when you use the road.

  8. But suppose someone decides to follow you?and to make records noting the time and place of your movements.

    Definitely creepy. But illegal?

    1. Since the vast majority of information collected equates to the tracking and storing the movements of non-criminals, it seems a waste of resources to collect that information.
      If the people in law enforcement and government aren’t going to misuse the information, why do they need to collect it?

      1. Why should be irrelevant, no? I should be allowed to do whatever I want to do as long as it causes no harm, yes?

        1. YOU, sure. But then you do not possess a monopoly on the use of force.

          That sets you apart from the government and the government absolutely should not be allowed to do whatever it wants without a REALLY good reason.

          1. OK, but what is government but the tracking of people that we do together?

        2. totes,

          I’m short on brain power this afternoon, would you elaborate? My comments included a bit of snark yet I thought that might be a good way to express the beginnings of ideas which I am forming about license plate readers and related devices. Stated differently, I am open to thoughts and views about this subject, especially if they are viewed through a principled lens, if you will.

          1. I’m just thinking that out in public is out in public. We shouldn’t necessarily be against people doing what they want out in public. Maybe I have a hobby of following people around and writing their activities in a notebook. As long as my actions cause no harm, that should be OK. I understand the point people are making that government is different, it just seems like weak tea. There has got to be a better reason than “this information may be used for nefarious purposes”. I dunno, maybe there isn’t and maybe there doesn’t need to be. I certainly don’t want someone or a group of someones following me around like that, but there are some discomforts that arise from freedom.

            1. Excellent clarification. Thank you.

              My initial and current impression is that the individuals and groups that made up the government(s) in the U.S. had restrictions on what they were allowed do. This is the way I’m approaching the subject of license plate readers, et cetera.

              …there are some discomforts that arise from freedom.

              Here we clearly agree. And your statement reminds me of something obliquely relating to it. In my experience, when discussing many issues/subjects with individuals this subject arises frequently. The most frequent is the case of our Second Amendment (especially when the discussion includes citizens from “unarmed” societies).

              Thanks again for the clarification and helping fire off some synapses (and for overlooking the “totes” – it seemed friendly and okay at the time but I can see where it could have been taken the wrong way).

              1. Thanks again for the clarification and helping fire off some synapses (and for overlooking the “totes” – it seemed friendly and okay at the time but I can see where it could have been taken the wrong way).

                No worries. I’ve been around here long enough to not take offense at common H&R parlance.

            2. There has got to be a better reason than “this information may be used for nefarious purposes”.

              Coupled with “when collected, there was no legitimate government use for the information”, I don’t see why.

              1. The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

                1. I don’t disagree with 4A, Pro. My question is, how is watching someone and writing down what they do a violation of their security? If you have an honest answer, you too RC, I’d love to hear it.

                  1. Well, the government isn’t “someone.” In theory, government officials should be quite limited in what they do.

      2. “Since the vast majority of information collected equates to the tracking and storing the movements of non-criminals, it seems a waste of resources to collect that information.”

        Tell that to the NSA and their collection of cell phone and email communications. It doesn’t seem to have given them any pause.

        1. They already know – I’ve voiced my opinion via cell phone and e-mails.

      3. But but but, if they don’t have the data how can they catch you when you do become a criminal (or some prosecutor decides he wants to make you a criminal for some reason)?

        Do you even CSI bro?

      4. Since the vast majority of information collected equates to the tracking and storing the movements of non-criminals,

        Three felonies a day, baby.

        1. Link(s)?

          I may have read the same articles you have in this regard, Ted S., yet I do not have the links ready to hand and other readers may want to see supportive evidence.

  9. OT: Ariana Grande Shares Emotional Story of Being Objectified by a Fan: “I Am Not a Piece of Meat”

    While out getting food with her boyfriend Mac Miller, the singer says “a young boy followed us to the car to tell Mac that he’s a big fan.” But by the time the two got to their car, she says, “he was literally almost in the car with us. I thought all of this was cute and exciting until he said ‘ariana is sexy as hell man I see you, I see you hitting that!!!'”

    She writes in her post that she was offended by how the boy spoke to her and about her as if she wasn’t there, saying she felt “sick.”

    “This may not seem like a big deal to some of you but I felt sick and objectified,” she says. “I’ve felt really quiet and hurt since that moment.”
    We need to share and be vocal when something makes us feel uncomfortable because if we don’t, it will just continue. We are not objects or prizes. We are QUEENS.”

    So a woman who makes a living dressing up in skimpy outfits and dancing around on stage in a sexually provocative way, is outraged that she was “objectified”. Once again proving that feminism requires precisely zero self-awareness.

    1. She can go lick a doughnut. A skin doughnut. She is hawt tho.

      1. A skin cruller maybe.

        1. Or a skin long john

          1. Cream filled? We call them maple bars here on the civilized side of he us. Weirded me out the first time I bit into one and it was full of frosting. Never again.

            1. You just took the euphemism in a new direction. Congratulations, i guess.

    2. My response:

      Shut up, Ariana, nobody was talking to you.

    3. I predict an epic train wreck in the next decade.

    4. No no no. What she does is female empowerment. What sick pervert did is objectification because reasons.

    5. Of course you’re not. There’s barely any meat on you.

    6. I Am Not a Piece of Meat

      Yeah, well, here’s the thing, Ariana, you pretty much are a piece of meat. You’re not up on stage because of your brilliant songwriting or virtuoso musical abilities. You’re up there because you look good in the skimpy little outfit and the record company can convince tween girls that you’re some sort of role model. And it would be remarkably easy to find another piece of meat to fill the skimpy little outfit.

    7. The comments section is cringe-worthy. Try to count the number of times a female commenter posts the argument “women have the right to wear whatever they want without being objectified”.

      1. Actually, no one has the right not to be objectified. Objectification is how another person perceives you. It is their thought process. To claim you have a right not to be objectified is to claim you have a right to determine their thoughts and views.

      2. “women have the right to wear whatever they want without being objectified”.

        They’re half right. Women do have the right to wear whatever they want. They do not have the right to dictate how people react to them – especially when they know full well they’ll elicit a reaction.

        1. They’re half right. Women do have the right to wear whatever they want. They do not have the right to dictate how people react to them – especially when they know full well they’ll elicit a reaction.

          So really they’re full wrong. The proposition contained a corollary placing demands on the perceptions of others, which is claiming a ‘positive right’ that is tantamount to thought crime.

      3. My response to that is “The Supreme Court has recognized the concept of non-verbal ‘speech’ for decades. That being the case, if you wear sexy clothes you have initiated a ‘conversation’ about your seual availability with any male that sees you. You have a right to say ‘no’ and have that respected. Claiming a right to not have the question asked is horseshit.”

      4. Dave Chappelle had a great skit on uniforms.

  10. In response to the titular question: emphatically no. This is perhaps one of the most fundamental libertarian precepts: whether the village constable walking a beat, or police cruising around, their purpose is to be ready to respond if they do see something amiss, not monitor every person at all times.

    1. But, but, but they’re aren’t monitoring you, just the hunk of metal that hauls you around. Don’t like it? Walk. (Oh, and they’ll watch that, too.)

      1. Don’t like it? Walk. (Oh, and they’ll watch that, too.)

        Well of course, either you’re using a public sidewalk and they’re monitoring traffic loads, or you’re tresspassing and need to be prosecuted.

          1. I AM JUST BIG BONED!!!

            *runs away sobbing, to comfort self with 20 piece McNugget*

            1. Aha!

              runs away sobbing, to comfort self with 20 piece McNugget

              Thank you for the opportunity, Switz.

  11. OT: Attention SF area Reasonoids! We are having a meetup this Friday evening in SF. Email me at my handle @ for details.

    1. It’s not like Hit and Runners have anything to do on Friday night. May as well make it New Years Eve.

  12. It’s frickin’ Fairfax. There is no authoritarian action that would be unacceptable to them.

  13. From the article: “… because cars don’t commit crimes; only people do.”

    So obviously we need common sense car control! No driver’s license for anyone on a no-fly list, or anyone with a mental illness or with a felony conviction, no cars above a certain size, limit of no more than 4 cylinders, no military-style vehicles (sorry Humvee and Jeep) unless you’re a government agent, and no aftermarket modifications!


    1. Yes, but your car can be sued by the government.

      1. Please stop talking about yourself.

      2. Definitely must be banned!

        I’m sure it scares the crap out of some neurotically overprotective mom of three kids, ages 3, 7, and 14, all of whom she monitors 24/7. She already told her henpecked hubby he could buy a dangerous convertible over her dead body! So of course we must apply her own standard to everyone everywhere.

        Besides, no one NEEDS more than a handful of car models anyway. Not when children are starving.


    2. If ISIS gets more consistent about running people over, we might just end up with that. Although, ironically, by hijacking a truck they’ve already proved the uselessness of such regulations.

    3. No driver’s license for anyone

      Well, that is already the go-to punishment for all kinds of misdeeds that have nothing to do with driving.

    4. Somewhere in an underground parking lot, 3 driverless Ubers are planning a heist.

      1. I would watch that movie.

        1. We’ll get Michael Bay to shoot it. No dialogue, just 90 minutes of explosions.

  14. No. Next post.

      1. a stereotypically male-looking cheese character


      2. “Some days you can’t even enjoy a string cheese without sexism getting you down.”

        At some point these people are just going to melt down and try to burn the world.

        1. It might be fun to watch them flail around impotently as they can’t even manage to do that right. Like watching a three year old throw a tantrum because he can’t get a square block to fit in a round hole.

          1. No, it won’t. I’m tired of adult tantrums already. They just make me want to slap the person silly and shout “grow up!”

      3. It’s almost like women are more prone to eating a low-fat diet and advertisers/manufacturers cater to that.

        The horror!

  15. If the government isn’t going to do it themselves, they’ll coerce 3rd parties to do it for them.

    Fastrak data, New York City

    1. Immigration data, any employer

  16. Either they do not record any personal information, in which case they are worthless as a crime-fighting tool.

    There’s an easy work-around for this conundrum: just assume anyone in the flagged vehicle is guilty and “sort it out” later.

  17. It’s for catching stolen cars. YEAH, THAT’S THE TICKET!

    1. “We need data on non-stolen cars to find the stolen ones!”

  18. I wonder how quickly we’d hear the government talk about the need for privacy/secrecy if someone decided to set up a license plate scanner (on private property, with permission) outside the local police stations/substations/precincts and then cross-reference that data with the other scanners they set up.

  19. Should the Government Track Your Movements?

    Hm…try this:

    Does the government have the authority to track your movements?

    **checks article 1, section 8**


  20. Good stuff from the Cooch, i see. Then there’s this asshat

    kind of defeats the investigative purpose and the opportunity to have something like that.”

    Your purpose is mass-surveillance. Your purpose is unconstitutional at the federal and state level, regardless of what any court says.

  21. Scanned the comments; no word about autonomous cars?
    Does everyone think the precise routes and times WON’T end up in gov’t records?

    1. Come back on the next self-driving cars article. That point is raised every time there.

      1. Self-driving car articles are becoming as fun as those about abortion, buttsex, or Mexicans.

        1. You could do all of those, in a self driving car.

  22. Sheesh… what the hell is this administration doing? Obama wants to spend his last month in office taking some futile stand on Israel?

    1. Obama is a narcissist who feels personally slighted by Netanyahu and is responding in kind. Note that because he is a narcissist, resolving this slight is of the utmost importance.

    2. He wants to bind Trump’s foreign policy towards his own inclinations. Plus his anal cavity is aching from the fact that his only legacy is a failed healthcare program, economic stagnation and a slew of executive orders that can be undone as easily as they were made. Obama being Obama, he’s bound to act pissy and lash out.

    3. Teh Lightworker doesn’t need to fake it anymore – all the pro-Israel donors checks to the DNC have long since cleared.

      1. pro-Israel donors checks to the DNC

        What kind of pro-Israel idiot thinks giving money to Democrats will further the interests of Israel? (notwithstanding government services purchased from Hilary)

  23. Just wait until states start charging gas tax by the mile like they do for trucks.

    1. Coming soon to Taxachusetts, I seem to recall hearing.

      But take a look at the comments a couple of days ago (I’m too lazy to dig it out) to the effect that the People’s Democratic Washington State plans to reduce the number of miles driven by half by 2050. Ask yourself how that works out, and what it requires.

      1. Forced resettlement to heavily-guarded collective farms would be my guess. Or else simply continuing upon their current legislative trajectory, resulting in half of the population of the state leaving for someplace more hospitable such as the wilds of Idaho, and thereby reducing the aggregate number of miles driven by an equivalent amount.

      2. Using the system Washington Del Sur is spendingwasting millions to implement, no doubt.

    2. +1 Bob Poole’s surface transportation “innovation”

    1. p.s. It is off topic.

  24. Imagine if a company developed a small device capable of identifying municipal license plates (and the vehicle’s function), and store sightings of them in an online database. “Concerned citizens” would be able to buy this device for a very low price (could be done for ~$10), and place it on their property or in their vehicles. Just a few thousand of these devices in Virginia, would allow people to track most publicly owned vehicles in near real time.

    What do you think the ruling on that would be from the same judge?

    1. Please save that and re-post it as appropriate, Holger, regardless of whether or not you do so on the Reason website. Be cognizant of the necessity to include referential links to the Washington Post article (or both the WP and associated ones).

      1. Meh. Most people would likely think my example is not a valid comparison, and could only be used to disrupt their perceived safety.

  25. “Should the Government Track Your Movements?”

    Depends on who the president is.

  26. Yet a Fairfax judge unfortunately failed to pick up on that distinction recently when he ruled in favor of the county’s use of license plate readers.

    That’s the wrong distinction to make.

    The right distinction is that the government may not “notice” you or record your movements, because it’s not one of the enumerated powers.

    Private individuals may both notice you and record your movements as much as they like.

  27. If there is no hit on the plate that causes a police response (ticket, asset forfeiture, the boot, etc), then don’t store the data; problem solved. Next?
    (in the case of asset forfeiture, use the data to incarcerate the cop on felony theft)

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  29. License plate readers are fine to identify stolen vehicles or vehicles owned by people with active outstanding warrants. These functions can be identified in one or two days, if not instantly. The data on plates that did not “get a hit” should be required to be destroyed by law in not more than three days – with severe penalties for keeping the data longer.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  30. Remember, driving is a privilege, not a right. And the roads are public domain, so you have no expectation of privacy.


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