from the THE-DATABASE-IS-MADE-OF-PEOPLE! dept
Every day in the US, millions of license plate photos are scanned and stored in various third-party databases, accessible by hundreds of law enforcement agencies, including those at the federal level. Privacy concerns have been raised by groups like the EFF and ACLU, but these have been brushed off with two assertions:
1. Driving in public is, by definition, not a private activity.
2. The license plate/location data only identifies a vehicle, not a person.
The first point can't really be argued. Your expectation of privacy pretty much ends when you start traveling on public streets. But the massive number of plate photos scanned and stored still creates privacy concerns. Most of the photos stored in law enforcement databases have nothing to do with ongoing investigations, and long-term storage of irrelevant plate/location data allows law enforcement to "track" anyone it wants to. Further concerns arise when agencies troll events like political rallies to add plates to their databases. It may not be a privacy violation, but it does raise questions about surveillance of First Amendment-protected activities.
As for the second argument -- just cars, not people -- that one's apparently completely bogus.
In addition to tracking license plates, the federal government has been taking and sharing photos of drivers and passengers inside the cars, documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union show.The reality of the situation doesn't mesh with law enforcement's statements. And with ALPR manufacturers like Vigilant Solutions hoping to add facial recognition technology to their products, law enforcement agencies will soon have access to millions of individuals' photos, a large majority of which aren't currently under investigation.
License plate readers (LPRs) are designed to provide “the requester” with images of license plate vehicle numbers, in addition to “photos of visible vehicle occupants,” one of the newly released documents reads.
Another document obtained by the ACLU reveals the cameras have the ability to “store up to 10 photos per vehicle transaction including 4 occupant photos.”
The DEA's database alone holds at least 343 million LPR photos. Other law enforcement agencies are adding millions of shots to these shared databases daily. While the expectation of privacy is lowered in public settings, the millions of photos amassed turn these databases into long-term tracking devices. Surveillance of this scope used to be limited by personnel availability. Now, it's as easy as leaving camera running for the entire shift -- day after day after day. This low-effort process builds easy-to-use "maps" of citizens' movements -- where they work, where they live, which businesses they frequent, where they spend their "off" hours, which doctors they use, etc. And it's all at the fingertips of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.
No law enforcement agencies are willing to talk about the implications of storing millions of "non-hit" photos. Los Angeles law enforcement officials went so far as to claim all captured photos were "relevant" to investigations. What little has been uncovered has been the results of tenacious FOIA requesters or open records lawsuits. The efforts being made to keep this information out of the public eye has very little to do with "protecting law enforcement methods" and everything to do with minimizing the amount of scrutiny or criticism these agencies face.
With the steady improvement of facial recognition technology, law enforcement agencies will soon know not only where your vehicle's been, but who was in it. The push back against this technology isn't so much about preventing its use, but preventing its abuse. Storing records unrelated to criminal activity for years is nothing more than stockpiling of data for its own sake -- nearly completely divorced from the actual business of enforcing laws.