Law Enforcement Looking To Create A Searchable Database Of Everywhere Your Vehicle Has Been

from the oh-wow...-a-Google-with-even-LESS-privacy dept

Back in August, Mike wrote about some questionable sharing of license plate information between the US Border Patrol and various insurance companies. While the stated aim of tracking stolen vehicles might seem to make this sharing justified, the fact that this is going on with no oversight or accountability is cause for alarm.

Of course, law enforcement has long had big plans for license plate readers (LPRs). The ACLU has come across a recording of a 2010 National Institute of Justice conference in which one of the speakers expresses an interest in building LPR data into a “Google” of license plate locations.

Dale Stockton, Program Manager of the “Road Runner” project at the Automated Regional Justice Information System in San Diego spoke on a panel on license readers at the 2010 conference and explained to police and prosecutors in attendance how best to share license plate data. Mind you, he was talking about the location information of people never accused of any crime.

Stockton knows this would never fly if attempted directly. He states as much in the transcript:

We’re probably not going to have any centralized national giant bucket of license plate reader data. It probably wouldn’t stand the court of public opinion, and it’s probably something that, given where we are in the rollout cycle, wouldn’t easily be done, but we can develop regional sharing capability…

But the “court of public opinion” can be routed around, according to Stockton. Despite frankly stating that the public would find a “Google of license plates” odious, he intends to do just that, through a series of back doors.

And so doing, you get those set up and then begin to share between those regions, and as you begin to look beyond your region, utilize a trusted broker like Nlets

Every law enforcement agency has a connection to Nlets. Nlets would serve not as a storage unit but as a pointer system, something akin to a Google, so that when you check a plate, Nlets would point you in the direction of where that plate can be found, and the result of that would be a query in one state by an investigator could give an indication of plates of interest in other states, and then that information can be pulled back.

If Stockton has his way, a decentralized search system for license plates, routed through a third-party’s software, will perform exactly the way he wants it to. Somehow he feels that a distributed system is OK while a centralized system isn’t. Or rather, he feels that both systems are OK, but the public will only put up with the illusion that law enforcement isn’t running a Google-esque system of harvested plate data.

Is the fear of a system like this overblown? Every law enforcement official at the conference runs down several anecdotes about how the plate reading system has aided them in investigating various crimes. But should law enforcement have access to nationwide plate data, much of which pertains to citizens who have never been accused of a crime, much less committed one? Stockton tries to justify the LPR system by comparing it to officers running plates in person.

One of the questions about license plate readers is this kind of hocus pocus, “you are invading my privacy; it’s super intrusive.” And I come from the opposite end of the spectrum. I truly believe that this technology is only doing what license plate readers have already — I’m sorry — what officers have already been doing in the field for many, many years.

The courts have indicated to us that officers can look at a plate and run it. So let’s just go down quickly here through the two sides, an officer doing it and the license plate reader doing it. Officers can run plates anytime they want. The courts have held that’s why we put the state plate on there, so an officer can check and make sure it’s current and it’s not wanted. Well, the license plate reader is doing the exact same thing. It’s looking at it; it’s checking that plate to see if it’s wanted. The officer can pick and choose among the vehicles that he or she looks at.

The biggest difference here is the “always on” aspect and the fact that everyone is tracked. “Reasonable suspicion” and the like are taken completely off the table and replaced with an indiscriminate system that harvests data. It’s a handy way to peel back another layer of privacy, as Kade Crockford of the ACLU states:

We’ve been making a lot of noise about location tracking of late. License plate readers rank high among the technologies that are threatening our privacy with respect to our travel patterns. Where we go says a lot about who we are, and law enforcement agencies nationwide are increasingly obtaining detailed information about where we go without any judicial oversight or reason to believe we are up to no good. Stockton says we have nothing to worry about with respect to license plate reader data and privacy, that that’s all “hocus pocus.” But he’s wrong.

We must ensure license plate readers do not become license plate trackers.

As Crockford points out, the Department of Justice has already stated that Americans have “no privacy interest” when it comes to cellphone location information. The DOJ’s rationale could easily stretch to fit this scenario. But what’s “good” for the American public is rarely viewed as acceptable for those writing the guidelines or using the technology. For all the talk about “nothing to hide,” officials are very touchy when it comes to making their information accessible.

Data from license plate readers in Minnesota was obtained by a St. Paul car dealer using open-records laws, and used to repossess at least one car, according to a recent article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The article included this amusing tidbit:

“When the Star Tribune published data tracking Mayor R.T. Rybak’s city-owned car over the past year, the mayor asked police Chief Tim Dolan to make a recommendation for a new policy about data retention.”

So, the question that needs to be asked of every politician and law enforcement member who feels this system will only be used for catching “bad guys” is whether or not they’d mind having their location tracked via license plate readers. Stockton’s pushing for something he knows the public won’t stand for and is using successful investigations as the ends to justify the privacy-violating means.

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Comments on “Law Enforcement Looking To Create A Searchable Database Of Everywhere Your Vehicle Has Been”

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out_of_the_blue says:

Re: More replies than here, and actual discussion too.

What’s interesting is that quite obscure blog has so many replies (perhaps 5000 words total) on one topic, while here at supposedly influential Techdirt (the blog of Mike “Streisand Effect” Masnick!), it’s down to a few rabid regulars and a few lucid critics. I’ve noticed this before with other sites. In comparison, Techdirt gets remarkably few comments, so I question whether it’s as popular as Google ranks it…

Mr. Applegate says:

Re: Re: More replies than here, and actual discussion too.

Would you like to know thy that is out_of_the_blue?

People get tired of reading (and replying to) your (and others like yours), frequently off topic (how does your comment here relate to the topic of this post?), often illogical and poorly supported arguments and innuendo for comments.

Please understand that I enjoy, and will participate in, a good on point debate in the comments of any post that I find interesting, but the regular bashing (with no point or proof) gets really old, really fast!

Besides, I would rather visit a site with a few well thought out and reasoned opinions and arguments than a site filled with the ravings of a people hell bent on making an ass out of themselves. I highly value differing opinions and debate, but only those that remain on-topic, with logical well thought out positions and not those of a ranting lunatic.

Perhaps Google rates this site higher because of the content and number of hits, not because of the number of commentors.

I will take quality over quantity any day of the week. If I wanted quantity over quality I would goto reddit.

out_of_the_blue, I have read MANY of your comments, and if you are counting yourself as a “lucid critic” I must very candidly disagree! While I may (or may not) disagree with the articles written here, I have found them most always well thought out and usually with some supporting references.

On the other hand I frequently read your comments and come away with one thing. You hate Mike, not that you have any knowledge of the topic at hand, not that you even bother to read and comprehend the article. Just you hate Mike, and you hate anyone who thinks the pendulum may have swung too far in favor of the copyright holder. I don’t think I have ever seen you support any of your positions or statements with sources, but I have frequently noticed that you have claimed things that are factually false (regardless of the position you take).

Perhaps, you would be happier at reddit, they do seem to match your demeanor much more closely than Tech Dirt does.

Just a thought, but certainly not from a “rabid regular”.

out_of_the_blue says:

But if it's Google tracking you on the web, that's just cool!

When are you supposedly savvy techies going to look up from your 3 screens of sports and become alarmed that you’re under constant surveillance by an alliance of gov’t and corporations, latter having quasi-gov’t powers, and at best only commercial fronts that can “legally” skim for the gov’t information that gov’t is technically prohibited from gathering?

If you’re not alarmed at this point, just take Dick_Helmet’s advice: 3 screens of sports, kill the rest of your awareness with alcohol and drugs, and spew vulgarisms at anyone who tries to stir you from that stupor.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: But if it's Google tracking you on the web, that's just cool!

Ghostery + AdBlock + NoScript+”not using Google’s services” can stop (or at the very least, hinder) Google’s spying, but there is nothing I can do to stop the Government from spying on me. Well, nothing that won’t label me as a terrorist anyway.

Also, uh, 3 screens of sports? You don’t know geeks too well, do you?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: But if it's Google tracking you on the web, that's just cool!

I was going to go off pointing out the stupidity of your comment, and tear it apart line by line.

Then I saw your bit about alcohol and drugs? What the heck is wrong with either of those? Also, you are aware that someone can consume both and NOT kill their awareness at all, right? In fact, I know a number of people personally who are beyond decent, respectable and functioning people with very demanding jobs and who in their off time enjoy a good party. All of whom seem to have more awareness and display higher levels of it and intelligence than you do.

Also, spewing vulgarisms on here, is something done more often by people on your side of the aisle. And, if you didn’t write such blatantly stupid and non-factually based comments, you wouldn’t have people aiming vulgarities at you on a regular basis.

John Doe says:

I don't like it but it is probably legal

Since the law states you have no expectation of privacy when you are in public and Google street view is also legal, then a database of license plates readings is probably legal as well. We are in for 1984 style tracking and I am afraid there is little that can be done about it.

Jeremy Lyman (profile) says:

Re: I don't like it but it is probably legal

A single observation is probably legal, but storing and cross-referencing all sightings shouldn’t be. Just like the recent ruling on GPS trackers, even though it is somewhat similar to the analog version of following someone around, digital surveillance runs afoul of expectations of privacy.

In the GPS case, attaching the actual tracker to the vehicle wasn’t the issue, tracking the suspect over a duration of time was. So by the same reasoning, creating a historical database of a vehicle’s travels without a warrant should not be allowed.

Anonymous Coward says:

it’s got nothing to do with tracking stolen vehicles at all! it’s just another way of the government being able to keep their eyes on you, where you’ve been, who you’ve talked to etc etc etc. must admit i’m looking forward to the camera that’s gonna be fitted in the toilet bowl. i’ll be able to shit back on the government and law enforcement every day and not have to hide what i’m doing!

weneedhelp (profile) says:

Not over yet

Not just tags, that’s the first step. Then its facial recognition. Then tie all the private corporations cameras with the gov cameras. Airports, train stations, walking down the street. WAWA’s, Shop rite’s, etc, etc. You will have no where to go.

Dont worry, the DHS has it all laid out for you and the funding to boot.

Its all thanks to 911. But but but terrorists.

RD says:

It's posts like these

It’s posts like OOTB’s above that have led me to use the “report” button based on name, rather than content. When he CONSTANTLY spews bullshit and ad hom attacks at mike, the site, and everyone else, there is no point in bothering to read the bile to try to see if there could be, possibly, a valid point (there almost never is) or, sometimes, ANY point other than to slam everyone.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: It's posts like these

I’d have to disagree actually.

Using the report button based upon name, and not content, really doesn’t make you any better than the people you’re giving the pink treatment to, and I’ll try and explain why.

First of all, at times the ‘big three’ can actually come up with decent comments, it’s not always rot. AJ for example, when he refrains from trollish behavior can bring up some good points, backed up by outside links and sources. You may or may not agree with what he’s saying at the time, but it’s better to at least debate him when he’s looking for a debate, and only use the report button when it’s obvious an intelligent conversation is the last thing he’s looking for.

I’m not saying they do it most of the time, or even often, but it does happen occasionally, and it should be encouraged when it does.

Also, there’s a difference between a somewhat clueless post, which should not get the pink treatment, and instead should be responded to with a well reasoned counter-argument(or just ignored), versus a post obviously intended to troll and/or derail any constructive debate, which should get the pink treatment(and ignored), as it’s intent is anything but constructive.

Now, to be clear, with regards to these past two points, if you try and respond reasonably, and it gets you nowhere, or nothing but insults, then you can feel free to go nuts on the pinken-ing, and start ‘reporting’ to your heart’s content.

I suppose the point I’m trying to get across is, one should always try and at least start from a civil and polite position, and at least be willing to concede that the other side may very well have a good idea, or might be right where you are wrong, otherwise… well, otherwise what’s the difference from how you’re acting, versus how the trolls are?

Or, to put it very simply: When the trolls have gotten you to start acting like them, at that point they’ve won.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: It's posts like these

Oh there are times when it’s justified, for example when you run across a post filled with nothing but swearing, insults and personal attacks(of which I’ve seen a number)… a nice civil post isn’t exactly going to do anything there, so it’s better to just hit report, otherwise ignore, and move on.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: It's posts like these

On many sites, swearing /sometimes/ and arguing intelligently /sometimes/ would add up to getting barred. But blocking someone is not the spirit of techdirt. The result is too much energy spent on this ootb/aj.

I enjoy the usual low-stakes random sassing and jibes amid the intelligent and serious stuff. By random, I mean by all different people, in highly diverse directions. But this ootb/aj war is getting tiresome.

Even in 1986 I knew a guy who loved to trash newsgroups by flame wars, instead of getting on with his PhD.

What can we do about this guy without taking up too much energy? For every ten that don’t bother replying and rebuking, one does, and that makes hundreds!

How can you crowdsource an effective squelch? Or how can you crowdsource silence?

DCX2 says:

Tracking public vehicles should be legal

I honestly think that taxpayers should be able to track the location of any vehicle they own. Since Mayor R.T. Rybak drives a city-owned car, all of that location information should be available to every single taxpayer. If Mr. Rybak has a problem with this, perhaps because he doesn’t want people to see his location when he’s not performing in an official capacity, then he should drive his own vehicle when not performing city business.

Anonymous Coward says:

Databases of your every movement (license plate, cell tower, CCTV…), your every picture (facial and movement recognition…), your every read (site tracking, libraries, DRM…), your every communication (email, fb, twitter, with government access backdoors), your every buy (online, offline), your every financial transaction, your every health consultation, and more.

Total surveillance: check!

Mr. Applegate says:

This is just a natural expansion of the current tracking...

I don’t know why everyone is so surprised. do you frequently use products like “TollTag”, “TxTag”, or “EZ Pass” for easy travel on toll roads? Then you are already being tracked, that information is stored, and shared. This is simply the next step.

The same is true if you use a debit card or credit card, or even store discount cards. Information about where you were at a given time, what you bought… is all stored and easily available to large numbers of companies and yes, even the government.

You can also be easily tracked by your phone, the phone companies are way to eager to share such information with the government or anyone else.

People have been giving away their privacy for years. Actually, they are trading it for convenience. No one really knew that is what they were doing at the time, but there you are.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

We are already being tracked…but generally its not in a publicly accessable database. Government Databases can and should provide the information to the public. That said I don’t have a problem with the scanners themselves. I agree that aside from volume, there is no difference between a cop running your plate and the scanner. And given my love of the rule of law, I have no problem with more open scanning. If i was a cop i would scan plates just to keep people honest.

But a perpetual Database prompts other concerns. Like foursquare being used to figure out when you are away from your home so you can case a robbery without sitting outside the home.

DCX2 says:

Re: Re:

Sure there’s a difference between a cop running your plate and a scanner.

The scanner runs everyone’s plates. The cop only runs plates when he finds one suspicious. He’s not going to run everyone’s plates because it’s simply not cost effective.

Same thing with GPS tracking. The high cost of tracking individuals with actual police officers served as a pseudo check on abuse.

However, I agree that all government databases collecting information like this should be accessible to the public. Maybe then the public would understand why such databases are detrimental to our way of life.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

The biggest difference between the cop running a plate and the scanner IS the database.

The cop runs a plate, and either it is “of immediate interest” or not. If not the data (where that plate was when the cop ran it) is discarded probably pretty much immediately, but almost definitely it is not stored in a database.

The entire point of the scanner is to create the database and not to find a car “of immediate interest” because the scanner can’t really do anything about that “immediate” interest.

I am strongly against the idea of a database of locations of cars, and I agree that it is a large invasion of privacy and I feel it is unconstitutional.

The Real Michael says:

Re: Re:

Technology doesn’t discriminate but the people behind it can and often do. The problem with having such a huge amount of data being collected is that we don’t really know what it’s going to be used for (there’s ALWAYS an alterior motive at work which the public is not informed about). Those red light cameras have proven to be a nuisance to the public good and this has the potential to be much worse.

We must stop allowing the government/law enforcement agencies to keep broadening its authority without our approval.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

We must stop allowing the government/law enforcement agencies to keep broadening its authority without our approval.

I would say the same thing about private companies. I don’t want my data collected by them, either, unless I give permission. And make it clear to me how the data is collected, what is done with it, and how I can avoid having it collected. Better yet, give me tools that work without collecting data.

The Real Michael says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“I would say the same thing about private companies. I don’t want my data collected by them, either, unless I give permission. And make it clear to me how the data is collected, what is done with it, and how I can avoid having it collected. Better yet, give me tools that work without collecting data.”

The problem with private entities data-mining is that they can pretty much do whatever they want with it after the fact. They can turn around and hand it over to the authorities, who will likely use that data for profiling, or they can sell it to a third-party, profiting at your expense.

If you’ve ever seen those Progressive commercials for their ‘Snapshot’ program, you know that it’s essentially like inviting (installing?) big brother into your motor vehicle. Oh, and from what I’ve read it drains your car battery like water. Bonus!

Anonymous Coward says:

Can be outsmarted and rendered useless

Easily dupe the cops looking for a stolen car with XXX-XXX plates by removing it and tacking it on a different vehicle. The police can be very target blind. When they are trusting a system that says it has a stolen car they can go all out and seriously over-react. It was a common practice for smart thieves to snag another plate and swap from another car to get more distance. there are several stories of cops going over and beyond necessary force because the system said they had a car thief but was just another citizen. But they always assume they have a “bad” guy and don’t mind roughing them up a bit.

Mr. Applegate says:

Re: Can be outsmarted and rendered useless

You are assuming that this is for the ‘stated purpose’ to find stolen cars. That it not the true purpose, which it to be able to look up where a suspects car was over a given time period. Since most law abiding citizens don’t swap plates it will be very effective for it’s true purpose, even though we know it will fail for it’s stated purpose.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Can be outsmarted and rendered useless

Exactly, the people they want to keep tabs on are the folks that will easily slip through their fingers. The authorities don’t care one bit about Average-Joe-Six-Pack. They want the criminals, terrorists, whistle-blowers, informants or general targets of the day they haven’t caught yet or those they intend to catch. With this system in place, the law abiding citizen is just collateral damage. All it will do is just have more data to sift through to catch an already elusive target.

josh says:


so if the reader are doing whaqt the cops do now, I say lets go for it. but seeing as these things do the work of a worthless pos cop then they should be in the unemployment line. f the dirty f#ckers that align themselves with the police force in this country. All are traitors to the country as all are either enacting in unconstitutional practices or they know of them and are doing nothing about it. I have the lowest of of low respect for those imbread shits. they all deserve one thing. they deserve to have their last words before we take them out of our missery.

btr1701 (profile) says:


I’m usually not a fan of the ACLU, and I was ready to dismiss this as more of their overwrought sky-is-falling hand-wringing, but then I got to the part where the government officials were quoted as saying that they realize this sort of thing would never fly with the public, so they need to find ways to back-door it to avoid backlash from the people.

My problem with this isn’t so much the technology, but the attitude of the government officials. If you’re a government official and you know from the get-go that the people you’re supposedly there to serve don’t want you to do something, isn’t the proper response not to do it? It’s certainly not to brainstorm ways to hide it from the citizens or trick them into accepting it.

Mr. Applegate says:

Re: Re:

I don’t disagree, but there is limited capacity of a cop to run plates. On a busy street what percentage of the vehicles could one cop run the tags on? 1% more? less?? Also when a cop runs a plate the location, direction of travel… is not necessarily known (or at least it is not logged forever).

An automated system allows logging of 100% (ok realistically probably 98 – 99% of all vehicles plates, as well as exact time, direction of travel, speed, car color, probably model too and perhaps a photo of the driver. All of this could be logged potentially for your lifetime or longer.

So it is really a matter of scale. There is a huge difference between a cop running a plate on a car and ‘logging’ all travel on a given roadway.

The good old USA, where you don’t need papers to travel, because we already know where you are, where you are going and where you have been. From cradle to grave, we’ve got you covered.


O “Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?” [Hal]

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

The good old USA, where you don’t need papers to travel, because we already know where you are, where you are going and where you have been. From cradle to grave, we’ve got you covered.

Yup. Mobile is an amazing thing the way it can keep track of who you are, where you are, who your friends are, what you buy, what you view, etc.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

This reflects my viewpoint

The reason I don’t buy the “government bad, corporations good” argument is that I think the corporations will screw us over as much or more than governments. Silicon Valley is heading in the same direction as most corporations when they get powerful enough.

I just read this a few minutes ago.

Travis Shrugged: The creepy, dangerous ideology behind Silicon Valley?s Cult of Disruption | PandoDaily: “Given their Randian origins, we kid ourselves if we think most Disruptive businesses are fighting government bureaucracy to bring us a better deal. A Disruptive company might very well succeed in exposing government crooks lining their pockets exploiting outdated laws, but that?s only so the Disruptor can line his own pockets through the absence of those same laws.”

wordofme says:

tracking citizens

Seems its not enough that the government already spys on EVERYONE’S electronic communications, now they want to physically track our whereabouts anytime we drive somewhere.

Just one more reason that we need a revolution and replacement of a government that is turning the US in to a late edition of an Orwellian nightmare.

People like the guy advocating such crap need to be re-programmed to understand the humans he is working against

Kermitthe Froghere says:

Just walked by 2 cops

Just walked by 2 cops. One of them had to piss and they both bought coffee. I was smoking a joint as I approached and just held the doobie as they trampled past me then took 2 more tokes at the 7-11 windows as they did their biz. Cops on a mission have tunnel vision. How many cops have pulled you over while on their way to a meal? Zero.

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