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  (Source: Obama Campaign; modifications: Jason Mick/DailyTech)
License plate scanners are non-transparent and a threat to privacy, says ACLU

Across the country, police departments are receiving millions of dollars from the federal government to scan and store the license plates of law abiding Americans.  Much like the recent controversy over the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) collecting metadata on 99 percent of smartphone-using Americans, the driving concern about these scanners is that they give the feds -- and anyone who compromises their databases -- detailed maps to track law abiding citizens' movements.

I. Big Brother is Watching You on the Road

The amount of information collected is staggering in the few instances where statistics is known:
  • Maryland:
    • Jan.-May 2012
    • 29 million license plates read
    • 7,000 plates read by an officer's vehicle per shift
    • Only 60,000 were suspicious
    • Of these only 1,800 were something more serious than an invalid/expired/suspended registration or emissions violation
  • Jersey City, N.J.:
    • 250,000 citizens
    • 2 million license plates read per year
    • 5 year storage
    • An estimated 10 million plates on record
  • Yonkers, N.Y.:
    • Plate scans stored "indefinitely" as a "reactive investigative tool"
    • Quantity read is unknown
    • Detectives use database to track a suspects past and present movements, based on the plates
  • Mesquite Police Department, Texas:
    • All plate scans since 2008 on file
    • Dept. will delete license plate records older than 2 years, next month
    • Lt. Bill Hedgpeth [spokesman], "There's no expectation of privacy [on public roads and parking lots]." (Sound familiar?)
  • Minneapolis, Minn.:
    • Jan.-Aug. 2012
    • 4.9 million license plates read
    • Members of the public could ask for information on a specific plate until data was temporarily classified last year
    • Mayor R.T. Rybak's city-owned cars were tracked at 41 locations
    • Star Tribune reporter was tracked at seven locations
As mentioned, the key driving force behind the embrace of these scanners has been a deluge of funding from the Obama administration.  

Administration officials have refused to specify how much grant money was given to local and state law enforcement agencies for license plate tracking devices, but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates $289M USD and $1.4B USD was funneled through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for the purpose.  The DHS pools mirrored copies of the collected data at so-called "Fusion centers" which various federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies can access.

The ACLU was alarmed to find that only five states:
  • New Hampshire (banned)
  • Maine (restricted to monitoring critical infrastructure -- bridges, etc., limits storage)
  • Arkansas (limits storage)
  • New Jersey (state wide guidelines)
  • (Fifth state was unlisted)
... had laws on their books regulating the deployment of readers, use of readers, security provisions for the data, or limitations on how long it could be stored.

Police officer
Police officers state that transparency about plate scanning interferes with police activities. [Image Source: Keith Baker/WRAL]

The ACLU asked for information in 38 states, but received few replies.  Most police departments scoffed at its request for transparency and clarity, arguing transparency interferes with police activities.

II. New Suit Demands Data From States, Municipalities, and Feds

In response to those rejections, the ACLU has now filed [PDF] a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 1966 (5 U.S.C. § 552) lawsuit.  That should reveal more information on how much money is being spent, where the readers are, and how they're being used, but will likely require an onerous fight in various jurisdictions to get the data.

The ACLU warns:

It’s not an exaggeration to say that in ten years there will be ALPRs just about everywhere, making detailed records of every driver’s every movement, and storing it for who knows how long. In some cases, we know that the worst-case scenario—vast databases with records of movements of massive numbers of people—is already happening.

A recent Supreme Court case ruled it illegal for police to plant tracking devices on citizens' cars.  However, ultimately federal, state, and local law enforcement and intelligence agencies have found that they can get almost the same information by using a combination of license plate scans and telephony metadata.  (Of course the Obama administration is also trying to more directly sneak around the GPS tracking ruling, according the ACLU.)

You are being tracked
The ACLU is demanding answers about the Orwellian tracking of law abiding citizens. 

The FOIA lawsuit comes as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is reportedly planning a rollout of plate readers across all major federal highways, to fight the "war on drugs".  While all of the nation's past three presidents are admit former users of illegal drugs, The CATO institute estimates the government has spent $1T USD in tax money since 1971 [source] to imprison millions of Americans on non-violent drug offenses.  The government has in turn lost an estimated $2T USD in tax revenue from the war on drugs, which combined with the cost of enforcement totals almost a fifth ($3T USD) of the national debt [source].

No Spyn
Soon facial recognition may be added to the police state's bag of tricks.

Meanwhile the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has received over $1B USD (which of course is largely passed off to defense contractor special interests) to develop facial recognition systems.  By "scanning faces", the feds could in a decade or two have yet one more powerful dataset to track and potentially terrorize law abiding citizens, in addition to the seized telephone data and the license plate scans.

Sources: ACLU [1; PDF], [2], [3], Star Tribune



Comments     Threshold


This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

Nice try
By Ammohunt on 7/19/2013 2:52:37 PM , Rating: 5
This won't go anywhere but they are welcome to try. If you want to avoid this type of monitoring might i suggest the Ted Kaczynski cabin in the woods living; our right to privacy is long gone.




RE: Nice try
By spamreader1 on 7/19/2013 3:32:15 PM , Rating: 4
The downside to that as I understand it, is that makes you more suspicous to several authority groups. In some cases for good reason (ex. Koresh Compound in Mt.Carmel,TX). The only way to really get away from it is to move someplace were the technology isn't inplace or allowed.

Maybe an exodus of those who wish to continue to be private citizens, instead of just citizens, will happen slowly over time?


RE: Nice try
By delphinus100 on 7/21/2013 5:23:42 PM , Rating: 2
Yet another reason for human space flight.

(Yes, I know it won't be cheap or common enough anytime soon, but one must start somewhere...)


RE: Nice try
By xti on 7/19/13, Rating: -1
RE: Nice try
By mik123 on 7/19/13, Rating: -1
RE: Nice try
By spamreader1 on 7/19/2013 3:57:59 PM , Rating: 2
Well someone cares, otherwise the info wouldn't be worth gathering.


RE: Nice try
By ClownPuncher on 7/19/2013 5:09:48 PM , Rating: 5
The law states not to make stupid posts now. I send you to Gulag.


RE: Nice try
By overlandpark4me on 7/21/13, Rating: -1
RE: Nice try
By Reclaimer77 on 7/21/2013 3:06:36 PM , Rating: 5
He was impersonating a Russian using broken English, jackass lol. Can you say 'duh'?


RE: Nice try
By Monkey's Uncle on 7/22/2013 5:46:53 PM , Rating: 2
Some folks are a little slow ;)


RE: Nice try
By rountad on 7/22/2013 5:57:39 PM , Rating: 3
I read the post in my head with a Russian accent


RE: Nice try
By PaFromFL on 7/20/2013 8:38:31 AM , Rating: 2
The issue is how such a system could be misused in the future, not how it is being used today. Let's plant a bomb in everyone's head. If you don't break the law, the bomb will have no effect and there is no reason to be alarmed. Besides, there will be a strict judicial review and several safeguards built into the system. What could possibly go wrong?

We are merrily constructing tools that will make us the envy of all police states at some point in the future. Politicians (and the one percenters who bribe them) can not be trusted with this much power.


RE: Nice try
By Uncle on 7/20/2013 11:54:19 PM , Rating: 5
For all you people who think nothing of this. Read up on what it was like to live in East Germany under the thumb of the .Heres a quote from a book called Stasi
The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police
By JOHN O. KOEHLER. " "The Stasi was much, much worse than the Gestapo, if you consider only the oppression of its own people," according to Simon Wiesenthal of Vienna, Austria, who has been hunting Nazi criminals for half a century. "The Gestapo had 40,000 officials watching a country of 80 million, while the Stasi employed 102,000 to control only 17 million." One might add that the Nazi terror lasted only twelve years, whereas the Stasi had four decades in which to perfect its machinery of oppression, espionage, and international terrorism and subversion.

To ensure that the people would become and remain submissive, East German communist leaders saturated their realm with more spies than had any other totalitarian government in recent history. The Soviet Union's KGB employed about 480,000 full-time agents to oversee a nation of 280 million, which means there was one agent per 5,830 citizens. Using Wiesenthal's figures for the Nazi Gestapo, there was one officer for 2,000 people. The ratio for the Stasi was one secret policeman per 166 East Germans. When the regular informers are added, these ratios become much higher: In the Stasi's case, there would have been at least one spy watching every 66 citizens! When one adds in the estimated numbers of part-time snoops, the result is nothing short of monstrous: one informer per 6.5 citizens. It would not have been unreasonable to assume that at least one Stasi informer was present in any party of ten or twelve dinner guests."
Now convert what the Stasi did with our modern technology and I's be worried just a little.


RE: Nice try
By Ammohunt on 7/19/2013 5:08:24 PM , Rating: 3
Especially when in a few seconds you can plug in someones address and get a picture of what their house looks like, the color of the cars parked in the driveway, the neighborhood, some people with pigeon masks etc..


RE: Nice try
By ritualm on 7/19/13, Rating: -1
RE: Nice try
By cfaalm on 7/20/2013 4:56:48 AM , Rating: 3
That's a lame way to justify it. And if some rogue breaks into the records of the police, FBI, NSA your life will be up for grabs. I don't think we ought to go that way.


RE: Nice try
By laviathan05 on 7/22/2013 11:06:29 AM , Rating: 2
It doesn't even have to be a break in, one rogue employee that finds something worthy of blackmail is all it takes.


RE: Nice try
By overlandpark4me on 7/21/13, Rating: 0
RE: Nice try
By Ammohunt on 7/22/2013 11:13:04 AM , Rating: 2
Its obvious you have no clue who and what Ted Kaczynski is/was is about. Educated yourself before posting ignorant comments.


RE: Nice try
By Monkey's Uncle on 7/22/2013 5:49:39 PM , Rating: 3
This guy seems to be living proof why first cousins shouldn't marry.


"People Don't Respect Confidentiality in This Industry" -- Sony Computer Entertainment of America President and CEO Jack Tretton














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