ALPRs—Coming to a Street Near You

By John Bowman, NMA Communications Director

The NMA first raised the alarm on automated license plate readers (ALPRs) two-and-a-half years ago (E-Newsletter Issue #61: Here, There, Everywhere). With more and more police agencies throughout the country employing the technology, we thought an update was in order.

ALPRs are cameras (either stationary or mounted on patrol cars) that snap a photograph of every license plate that passes by them. (Check out the previous newsletter for a video clip.) The devices then check the plate number against a variety of databases searching for things like stolen vehicles, owners with lapsed registrations, outstanding fines or warrants.

By all accounts ALPRs have proliferated rapidly. But just how fast and how far this troublesome technology has spread remains an open question.

Here are a few things we do know about ALPRs: Enforcement agencies in all 50 states have adopted the technology due to its ability to efficiently process vast amounts of data. One plate reader can scan up to 3,000 license plates per minute. Patrol-based units use a laptop computer to quickly identify and pinpoint the location of a suspect vehicle in real time.

With enough cameras, ALPR systems can blanket a city and essentially track the day-to-day movements of thousands of vehicles at a time. For example, Washington D.C. has quietly installed more than 250 ALPR cameras throughout the district. That’s more than one camera per square mile.

Millions in federal grant dollars have been made available to law enforcement agencies for the purchase of ALPR systems. System suppliers have been quick to facilitate the grant-making process by offering extensive assistance to agencies looking for grant money.

The result? Countless police agencies adopting a surveillance technology capable of tracking countless motorists, all with the financial support of the federal government. What can go wrong?

In an effort to target relatively few drivers for legitimate law enforcement purposes, detailed information on millions of others is swept up in the process, creating what amounts to a warrantless tracking tool. The privacy implications are staggering: How long is that information stored? Who has access to it? How can they use it? What protections exist to make sure abuses such as mistaken identification don’t occur?

The length of time data are retained varies from agency to agency. Some keep data for as little as 30 days, while others, like the New York State Police, retain the data indefinitely. The potential for data sharing is huge. The ACLU has reported that states are beginning to pool their ALPR data into huge databases which are easily accessible by law enforcement officials at all levels. All with no judicial oversight. Speaking of oversight, only two states (New Hampshire and Maine) have enacted laws controlling the use of plate readers and the data they generate.

Back to our original question, how fast and how far has ALPR technology spread? To find out, local ACLU chapters recently sent public records requests to nearly 600 municipal and state law enforcement agencies seeking detailed information about their use of ALPR systems. Freedom of Information Act requests were also filed with the Department of Justice, Homeland Security, and the Department of Transportation to learn how the federal government uses the technology and how it has been funding ALPR programs around the country.

We commend the ACLU and believe their work will help protect motorists from the inevitable abuses posed by ALPRs. However, it’s worth noting that some of the largest compilers of ALPR data are not public agencies but private companies.

Vigilant Solutions, a California-based company, has built what may be the largest repository of ALPR information anywhere. Using the same technology as law enforcement, the company claims to have compiled a database of more than 825 million license plate records. All of which it makes available to law enforcement agencies.

We’ve all seen what happens when public officials ally themselves with for-profit private firms ( i.e., ticket camera vendors) in the interest of public safety. What, if any, motorist privacy policies Vigilant has put in place remain unclear. Establishing ALPR oversight in the public sector is important, but doing so in the private sector may be more critical in the long run.

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