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 image 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 as
- Stolen Vehicles
- Wanted for an Amber Alerts
- Expired Registration
- Expired Insurance
- Wanted as “Persons of Interest” for any investigation
Anytime of 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
- Suspended Driver’s License
- Outstanding Criminal Warrant
- Outstanding Municipal Taxes or other Fines and Fees
- Are Wanted for any other police or government purpose
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.
The issue is they don’t even have to plan to violate your rights, or know what they are doing with it at the time. It 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 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 everyday, often paid for by federal grants or homeland security. It won’t be long before nearly every police vehicle has a license plate scanner on-board. 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.