Are license plate scanners tracking you? This is why you should be worried

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When police lurk on city roads and check for speeders, they often have technology that can instantly read a car’s license plate. Thanks to this, they can get detailed information about the driver and check for warrants. Tap or click here to learn how digital license plates are packed with multiple tracking sensors.

But as license plate scanners have evolved, they have become more accessible to the public. This naturally creates a privacy problem, as seemingly ordinary citizens can spy on someone’s car.

Read on to find out what data they collect and why you should be concerned.

Here’s the backstory

The technical term for the devices is Automated Number Plate Recognition (ALPR), and you’ll often see them on street poles or mounted on police patrol cars.

The primary use by law enforcement is to quickly scan a vehicle’s license plate and record the time, date, and location. From there, police use the data to track down the owner or see if there are any outstanding warrants.

Police in Fort Worth, Texas, even use scanning technology catch people setting off fireworks within the city limits. The team monitors security cameras and ALPR devices from the city’s crime center in real time.

The Houston Police Department has been using ALPR for several years, and a Video from YouTube 2016 explains that officers use mounted cameras while on patrol. When the system detects a stolen or wanted vehicle, it alerts the officer in less than a second.

Why are ALPR devices a problem?

For the most part, the police use this technology to find stolen cars. But before that happens, they have to scan every car. So every time an officer drives through a neighborhood, he checks the license plates of each car, writes down the license plates, location, date, and takes a picture.

Depending on the policy of the police department, the data is kept for a few seconds to several years. It wouldn’t be so bad if the data stayed in the police network, but some private third-party providers also collect this information. And the police regularly contract with these companies to process the data.

Some of the data that ALPRs can capture include:

  • License plate information
  • Make and model of the car

Combined with security cameras, even more information can be captured, including:

  • Pictures of drivers and passengers
  • Driving habits and usual destinations
  • The immediate environment
  • Bumper stickers

Rachel Levinson-Waldman, head of the Freedom and Homeland Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, recently said there are real concerns about how these devices infringe on privacy.

“The police don’t need a warrant to get that kind of information. If you combine that license plate data with other information (such as cell phone tracking), it becomes very dangerous to have that license plate reader data in your hands.” – she explains.

The controversial technology was the basis of a Vice investigation that revealed that a little-known company called Flock allows police officers to track cars (and specific people) outside their jurisdiction.

Thanks to a program called TALON, “cameras can automatically record when a ‘non-resident’ vehicle enters a community and alert police to hot-listed vehicles,” Vice’s Motherboard explains.

What can you do about it

The TALON system is used across the country, and more than 500 police departments in 1,000 cities have access to these cameras. It works so fast that it can provide 500 million scans per month. Unfortunately, there is not much you can do about it.

As Levinson-Waldman explains, “The Supreme Court has made it quite clear that because vehicles on public roads can be seen by any member of the public, there is no expectation of privacy in the license plate context.”

If ALPR devices become more widespread, the government may need to introduce regulations to protect the privacy of its citizens.

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Are license plate scanners tracking you? This is why you should be worried

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