License-plate readers prompt privacy worries
License plate readers (LPRs) are multiplying around the country, allowing federal agencies to track you and your car — and raising the concerns of privacy advocates.
Hundreds of the nearly-invisible devices are already installed at fixed locations, and more are on the way, as Salon wrote earlier this week. LPRs have mostly been used by local police departments to catch car thieves, petty criminals, and unregistered drivers by capturing their license plate numbers. But recently federal bodies like the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have been tapping into local databases as well as building their own systems.
Local police departments are also attaching LPRs to their cruisers, where they indiscriminately record any vehicle within range, alerting police in real time if a wanted vehicle is spotted. All scanned plates, not just those implicated in possible crimes, are recorded and tagged with GPS coordinates, a color photo and time stamp. A single scanner can record thousands of plates in a day. Because the information may be stored for several years, LPR systems can generate a retroactive surveillance story — plotting who was where, when.
Courts have held that a license plate number — which is, after all, affixed to vehicles in plain view — is not private information. Therefore, neither a warrant nor probable cause is necessary to search an LPR database.
“When you drive your car, you’re not guaranteed privacy,” as DEA spokesperson Rusty Payne told Salon journalist Jon Campbell.
Ars Technica reported in July that the DEA has already installed LPR devices in Arizona, California, Texas and New Mexico to track illegal immigrants and drug smugglers. The agency is planning to expand its systems deeper into the nation's interior.
Defenders of the technology say the devices are used solely to track suspected criminals, not innocent people. But as Forbes reported last month, the government has shared license plate tracking info with third parties like the National Insurance Crime Bureau, an Illinois nonprofit composed of hundreds of insurance firms. Earlier this year, the New York Police Department came under scrutiny for using the technology to track vehicles coming and going from city mosques.
Privacy advocates say digitization has vastly expanded what authorities can learn from physical surveillance. Stationing a police officer to observe license plates for a day is quite different from building a system of scanners that can record your plate hundreds of times in a day.
"We have a failure to understand the dangers of having a complete history of people,” Lee Tien, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights organization, told Ars Technica.
License plate tracking isn't the only surveillance technology garnering attention from privacy advocates. As GIMBY's News Focus reported last week, the FBI is also looking to expand its facial recognition technology using a system of nationwide surveillance cameras. And when license plate scanners and facial recognition don’t prove sufficient, there are always drones.
There is no specified protection and guarantee of privacy but there are amendments that are interpreted to include “rights to privacy.”
Bill of Rights (and 14th Amendment) Provisions Relating to the Right of Privacy
(Privacy of Beliefs)
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
(Privacy of the Home)
No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
(Privacy of the Person and Possessions)
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
(More General Protection for Privacy?)
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.