On the heels of the NSA domestic spying scandal, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced plans in February to build a national database of motor vehicle license plate data. Not only would the system have included data collected by DHS, but data from other law enforcement agencies and private companies as well.
The good news is that two days after the announcement, DHS shelved the program, saying that key decision-makers had been left out of the loop. The bad news is that DHS will likely find a less public way to achieve 24/7 surveillance of every car on the road. It’s been syphoning plate data from a private firm, Vigilant Solutions (which boasts a database of 1.8 billion license plate images), for years and will likely continue to. Private firms like Vigilant Solutions are among the largest collectors and purveyors of license-plate data. This raises concerns about the privatization of law enforcement and the abuses and corruption it engenders.
Such vehicle surveillance systems use automated license plate readers (ALPRs)—high-speed cameras, either stationary or mounted on patrol cars, that capture every license plate number they encounter. The system marks the time and vehicle location and then checks the plate against a variety of databases searching for things like stolen vehicles, lapsed registrations, outstanding fines or warrants. The systems can also check for drivers with unpaid taxes or child support, lack of insurance or even to alert the repo man.
One plate reader can scan up to 3,000 license plates per minute. With enough cameras, ALPR systems can blanket a city and track the day-to-day movements of thousands of vehicles at a time.
Law enforcement agencies in all 50 states have implemented ALPR systems, thanks mostly to grants from the federal government. In 2013 the ACLU released a report analyzing the impact of such pervasive surveillance on personal privacy. Here’s an excerpt:
The implementation of automatic license plate readers poses serious privacy and other civil liberties threats. More and more cameras, longer retention periods, and widespread sharing allow law enforcement agents to assemble the individual puzzle pieces of where we have been over time into a single, high-resolution image of our lives. The knowledge that one is subject to constant monitoring can chill the exercise of our cherished rights to free speech and association.
The ACLU statement identifies several key ALPR privacy concerns:
- How long will the information be retained?
- How widely will it be shared?
- Who will have access to it?
- How will it be used?
Further concerns come from the fact that policies regarding use of ALPR data vary widely. The Minnesota State Patrol requires deletion after 48 hours. Some agencies hold data for 30 days, while others keep it indefinitely. But timely deletion matters little if the data have already been shared with other agencies or uploaded to a federal fusion center.
NMA President Gary Biller, in a recent presentation on ALPRs, observed that “the horse has left the barn,” meaning that widespread use of ALPRs is here to stay. So the question is what can we do to protect the privacy of the driving public?
Biller stressed the need for legislation at the state and federal level to address the privacy concerns listed above. Only five states (Arkansas, Maine, New Hampshire, Utah and Vermont) have enacted plate reader laws. But, again, the scope of provisions varies widely.
We need more ALPR legislation that balances the needs of legitimate law enforcement with the need for robust privacy protections. A good model comes from a North Carolina bill under consideration in that state’s Senate Transportation Committee. Senate Bill 623 would do the following:
- Restrict the use of ALPRs to municipal, county or state law enforcement agencies
- Prevent sharing of plate data for any reason
- Require deletion of data after 10 days unless flagged
- Limit the types of crimes and violations that data can be used to investigate
- Restrict data matching to specific databases such the State Criminal Justice Information Network, National Crime Information Center and missing/kidnapped persons lists
We encourage lawmakers across the country to follow North Carolina’s lead and establish meaningful ALPR restrictions before it’s too late.