For those of you alarmed by the pervasiveness of Google Earth imagining, buyers beware! Staying off the map is becoming increasingly more difficult as new surveillance technology enables law enforcement to collect and store mass amounts motion tracking data.
Advanced license plate recognition technology systems (ALPRs or LPRs) photograph license plates using infrared cameras, effectively drastically increasing the volume of license plates law enforcement officers can scan. Whereas the old method of identifying suspicious vehicles was highly discretionary, requiring officers to call in to check individual license plates against “wanted vehicles[,] . . . [s]ome LPR systems can scan up to four lanes of traffic and read 8,000-10,000 plates in just one shift.” LPR technology can synthesize “dates, times, locations, and plate names of cars in its range, it can also be used to locate individuals or offenders based on previously collected data as well as confirm a suspect’s alibi or whereabouts at a particular place and time” by comparing tags to statewide “hot list[s]” of vehicles wanted by law enforcement.
But catching up on unpaid parking tickets isn’t going to save you.
The effect of mass LPR scanning is the recording of all visible tags.
On a national scale, advocates of mobile and fixed LPR systems explain that the amalgamation of this data “create[s] a network of extra eyes [that] can be a powerful way to help keep a community, city or sensitive area safe.”
The ACLU, however, remains concerned about the power of such images in mass. Citing 2012 Supreme Court decision U.S. v. Jones, finding that month long surveillance of a vehicle by GPS installation constituted a “search,” the ACLU is suggesting that the broad, prolonged tracking capabilities of LPRs are in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
Lawsuits addressing the legality of LPR bans are already popping up. Representatives of LPR manufacturers and LPR data storage syndicates are banning together behind the First Amendment. LPR supporters point out that license plates in fact exists to regulate vehicles and go on to say that LPRs only work to collect information available to the public. To that argument, the ACLU looks again to the significance of LPR data in the aggregate. Quoting the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit decision United States v. Maynard, the ACLU warns:
“A person who knows all of another’s travels can deduce whether he is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.”
The ACLU turns First Amendment arguments in favour of LPR technology on their head by suggesting prolonged tracking violates freedoms of speech and association.
Digital Recognition Network (“DRN”) is just one example of syndicates selling LPR data to private companies. DRN founder Todd Hodnett is pairing with Michael Cavin, LPR manufacturer Vigilant Solutions’ representative, who responds to ACLU privacy concerns and reassures citizens by saying, “You can’t use plate information to get access to someone’s bank account. . . . All [DRN] wants to do is identify vehicles that are subject to repossession or for police investigations.”
Regardless of LPR manufacturer and syndicate motives, LPRs are being used by 70% of local law enforcement offices. While the popularity and power of this surveillance technology is growing increasingly clear, it remains to be seen the extent to which individuals will begin to watch themselves knowing that they are being even more closely watched.