Travelers checks: Automatic License Plate Readers track your every move
Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty July 14, 2011
ACLU of Massachusetts privacy rights coordinator Kade Crockford wrote the following guest blog.
Remember the furor this spring, when we learned that iPhones and other mobile devices were logging every move their users made? Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs) would do something similar to your car.
Late last year, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts advertised a $300,000 grant from the federal Department of Transportation for the purchase of ALPRs. Over 90 agencies in the state applied; 27 were given the grant money.
Many of these towns (see a full list here) have already implemented the technology. At least one, Brookline, is currently struggling with whether or not to accept the funds and implement an ALPR.
ALPRs are not ordinary cameras. Attached to police cruisers, or fixed on telephone poles or other stationary places, the cameras snap an image of nearly every license plate they encounter. The device produces a file for each image captured, which includes searchable text displaying the time, date and GPS location of the car when and where the plate was 'read'. This information is fed into a database, where it can be shared with other agencies and databases, and "mined" or analyzed.
One of the major problems with ALPR technology is that it sucks up all license plates, not simply those associated with people suspected of wrongdoing. Therefore as the technology expands, it is possible that law enforcement will be able to track your movements with incredible precision as you go about your daily life in your car. Without proper privacy protections backed by the force of law, ALPRs become yet another tracking technology.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of agencies using these machines have little to no regulation controlling their use. The state legislature in Massachusetts has yet to act to protect us from this kind of tracking.
And the technology is spreading fast. ALPRs are the new rage in law enforcement. A New York Times article from a few months ago described how the NYPD is rapidly expanding its ALPR program. The city currently has hundreds of the cameras, operating out of its counter terrorism office. Combined with its thousands of surveillance cameras and its advanced database mining programs, the NYPD aims to create a "ring of steel" in downtown Manhattan, allowing for near total surveillance over the people in that area.
Here in Massachusetts, police are just beginning to use ALPR technology.