Automatic license plate readers are rapidly being adopted across the country for use by law enforcement agencies and private businesses. While license plate readers can quickly identify wanted vehicles and enhance public safety, many are questioning the lack of regulations behind the use of this technology.
License plate scanners work with the use of cameras mounted on places like police cars, bridges, overpasses, and border crossings. These cameras take pictures of all passing license plates, and work in a variety of weather and light conditions. The images are then converted into computer-readable data and compared to “hot lists,” lists of license plate numbers from, for example, stolen cars. When a match occurs, an alarm sounds to alert the police officer or other user. All data scanned, including the license plate number, location, date, and time, is then stored in a database. The ACLU requested records from states that use license plate scanners, and found that the scanners generate a hit less than one percent of the time, but all data collected is stored in the databases. Many jurisdictions do not have strict limits on when data on innocent people must be deleted or how the data can be shared.
EFF is concerned that by ‘building a database of that information over time, law enforcement can learn where you work and live, what doctor you go to, which religious services you attend, and who your friends are.’
Groups like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have expressed concerns about the lack of regulations of license plate scanners. The location-based data that license plate scanners collect can show a great deal about a person’s life. EFF is concerned that by “building a database of that information over time, law enforcement can learn where you work and live, what doctor you go to, which religious services you attend, and who your friends are.”
One police department has already been confronted with the problem of a privacy violation. In December, the Boston Police Department indefinitely suspended its use of license plate scanners after the police accidentally released license plate numbers gathered over a six-month period to the Boston Globe. The police department commissioner is reviewing the program to make sure “it’s being used effectively and that it doesn’t invade anyone’s privacy.”
While a few states regulate license plate readers, many do not have strict policies in place. New Hampshire is the only state to ban them altogether, and when a bill was introduced last month to allow police to use license plate scanners, the House overwhelmingly voted it down.
In response to their concerns about the lack of regulations, EFF and the ACLU of Southern California filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department to find out how the agencies are using license plate scanners, arguing that “the departments are improperly withholding these records, keeping important information about this invasive surveillance technology from the public.”