Automatic License Plate Scanners & The Coming Surveillance State

Automatic license plate scanning systems are tracking your movements, and logging your location. And there is almost nothing you can do about it. While there are serious civil liberties issues raised by these systems, it appears that they are here to stay.

lakewood police
Creative Commons License photo credit: bradleygee

These license plate image scanning systems are rapidly becoming standard equipment on police cruisers nationwide.  For a cost of around $10,000 each, these machines allow police officers to passively monitor 1500 license plates per minute. If a vehicle is within camera range of a police vehicle, whether moving or stationary, that tag is identified, time logged, geo-located by GPS,  and matched against multiple databases where that plate id might be flagged, including local police data, statewide RMV, or nationwide federal law enforcement databases.

If the license plate, or driver/owner associated with the vehicle is flagged in the databases, the officer in the vehicle is instantly alerted, resulting in possible arrest or citation.

Police officers view them as a great resource and time saving device. It is perfectly legitimate for an officer to sit by the side of the road and manually enter and check in the computer any license plate for known outstanding criminal warrants, suspended license or insurance, or stolen vehicle reports. So these systems, they say,  merely automate and multiply that option 1000 fold.

And the results can be dramatic. The devices can often quickly pay for themselves in recovering unpaid parking tickets, and even municipal taxes owned. And most people agree that these systems are extremely efficient at locating and recovering stolen cars.

But the civil liberties concerns loom large when one considers the vast amount of data that is being collected, and who controls it. The government is assembling, by accident or by design, potentially billions of points of historical data about your whereabouts, that can be searched at any time.

Private Companies Scanning License Plates and Sharing Data With Police

Creative Commons License photo credit: _sarchi

The latest trend is for shopping malls to use stationary license plate scanners to track all vehicles driving in and parking to shop. This is already happening in California, where malls in Manteca and Sacramento are collecting and instantly sharing this data with local police.

This technology will only become cheaper and more widespread. While there doesn’t appear to be anything you can do about it, it is important to be aware that it is happening.

The bottom line is, you have no expectation of privacy or anonymity when driving your car. If you happen to know you have an outstanding warrant for your arrest, failure to appear in court, or are being sought by the government by any reason, you can’t expect to drive a car registered to you and not be pulled over.

The same is true with a suspended drivers license, lapsed car insurnace, and even civil back taxes or unpaid traffic violations.

Drive safely!

About David Matson