Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) Scanning Systems

Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) scanning  systems are one of the newest technologies in the hands of law enforcement. The system consists of several cameras mounted on a police cruiser, hooked up to a computer inside the vehicle. The number and letter images on license plates are scanned and matched with an on-board, real-time database. This database can be set with flags for vehicles that have been identified or tagged for any reason, including:

  • Stolen Vehicles
  • Wanted for an Amber Alerts
  • Expired Registration
  • Expired Insurance
  • Wanted as “Persons of Interest” for any investigation

Any time one of these alerts is triggered, the officer in the vehicle is immediately alerted to your presence, and for what reason your car has been flagged.

The system can also be matched with the owner of the vehicle via a DMV database. So if you are the owner of a car and have a

you can find yourself stopped by the police in a heartbeat, just for driving down the street, and not committing any traffic violation.

How Many License Tags Can They Scan?

A license plate scanner can capture thousands of tags per hour. A police car parked on the side of the highway can scan virtually every car license plate in sight. The can successfully identify a vehicle in the going in the other direction down the highway at 70mph.

Every time an image is captured, it is saved with the time, date, and location by GPS coordinates. So the police now have a record of where your vehicle was spotted at the time of the scan.

Can The System Make Mistakes?

Definitely, no system is flawless. Sometimes the optical character recognition will guess wrong. If it can’t decide which letter is on a plate, it will search the database for hits on both options. So it is entirely possible to be pulled over mistakenly based on a hit from the license plate scanner.

Massive Data Mining and Retroactive Search Capabilities

The Coming Surveillance State

As more systems go online, deployed in every local, state, and federal law enforcement vehicle, and even at stationary points, like entrance points to a city, what does this mean?

Data for these systems comes from state and  local law enforcement databases, DMV lists, and the FBI National Crime Information Center database (NCIC).

Where does all the data get collected, and shared, and for what purpose?  It’s already been established that police can data-mine historical data, and pull up all the touch points of a license plate across multiple systems.

With all of this data, the government will be capable of massive retroactive searches with no warrant or probable cause.

You can imagine how they can cross-reference this information.

  • Was your car parked outside known drug house or other suspicious location?
  • Where you parked next to someone suspected of a crime, or any other person of interest?
  • Are you known to park your car regularly near political events? The could look up everyone who was at a community meeting a year ago. If a police cruiser just happened to drive through a parking lot on that night, they’ve got the data. And who is to say they aren’t gathering this information on purpose?

The police or feds don’t have to violate your rights deliberately, or even know what they are doing with it at the time. The data is being collected, and can be used for any purpose in the future. It can be used to gather evidence for future investigations of crimes that haven’t happened yet.

The possibilities to use this location placement data to create circumstantial evidence against you will quickly become overwhelming.

Are License Plate Scanners a Violation of My Civil Rights?

No, not according to the law. You have no expectation of privacy while out in public. Courts have regularly held that police officers are allowed to randomly type license tags into their computer as they pass by.  These systems are just a version of that on steroids.

The Bottom Line on The License Plate Scanner Explosion

Additional local police departments are setting up these systems every day, often paid for by federal grants or homeland security. It won’t be long before nearly every police vehicle has a license plate scanner onboard. The web of interconnected systems will mean you won’t be able to drive down the road without being scanned, tracked and logged, multiple times.

And all that data will sit… somewhere. It will be simple for your travel patterns to be instantly pulled up, analyzed, compared, and matched with any patterns that someone may deem “suspicious”, for any reason.

No doubt this will be a significant improvement to public safety in many cases. But someone should be asking what we are giving up in the process, and what if any restrictions exist on the use of this data to check up on ordinary citizens.

Update: Are state laws and privacy advocates pushing back?

The good news is that pushback is happening, in the courts and the state legislatures.

Recently, the Federal Eight Circuit court of Appeals found that private license plate data collection companies do not have unlimited First Amendment rights to photograph everything and scan and save the data. States like Arkansas in this case (and Utah previously) have tried to pass restrictions on data collection. The Arkansas law stands, and only allows data collection from government entities. The Plaintiff in the case, Digital Recognition Network Inc (Vigilant Solutions) was hoping to get its own data collected by private towing companies or other venues, in order to sell the data to other private entities – repo firms, car insurance investigators, or anyone else who would pay.

And California just passed a new law requiring ALPR operators to safeguard the data and personal privacy of the individuals and cars scanned in data sweeps. With the data defined as personal, any security breach of personal data would trigger notification requirements to be disclosed to the individuals.

Essentially this gives individuals the right to sue private companies if they are hacked and their private location data is exposed. These changes to California’s civil code become effective on Jan 1, 2016.