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G.W. SchulzBack to OpinionG.W. Schulz

License-plate readers becoming a fixture in local police arsenals

Private manufactures enthuse that it’s like having an extra police officer in every patrol car while saving on personnel costs. Opponents of excessive government intrusion warn it will allow law enforcement to spy on innocent people by tracking their whereabouts.

Automatic license-plate readers enable police to rapidly verify that passing motorists aren’t behind the wheel of a stolen vehicle or don’t have outstanding warrants. Motorola Inc. unveiled a major public safety initiative last month in which company officials envisioned four separate license-plate readers aiming in different directions someday being affixed to the outside of all squad cars. The company for several years now has capitalized on large, post-Sept. 11 investments made by government agencies in new emergency communications systems and other enhanced security equipment.

Flickr photo of New Hampshire license plate by Amy the Nurse.

While plate readers are less visible than public video cameras in the debate over probing surveillance technology, they’re perhaps even more powerfully tempting to law enforcement: Motorola claims the devices can read up to 5,000 plates during an eight-hour shift. Software compares information sucked up by the readers to electronic lists of cars reported stolen and warrants that are outstanding.

Officers would otherwise have to manually check such information and cover just a fraction of the license plates they come into contact with while on the beat. Police in Long Beach, Calif., Motorola says, made 50 arrests, identified nearly 1,000 stolen or lost license plates and seized 275 stolen vehicles in just six months. The readers can also put a quick stop to motorists evading a pesky traffic ticket or four that they’ve allowed to languish without attention for months.

Police are required to do virtually nothing when plate readers are in operation. The system is automatic and notifies the officer when a suspect vehicle is identified among thousands being scanned, presenting him or her with an image of the car and its plate, plus details about why the driver deserves scrutiny.

Legally speaking, license-plate readers are not unlike what law enforcers do every day, confirming automobile registration and other information the government already retains electronically. In other words, on their surface the readers don’t seem to resemble a new Orwellian monster in which the most sensitive personal information about yourself is stockpiled in massive data systems.

A closer look, however, could set off alarm bells. The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state argued May 26 that plate readers store the time, date and GPS location of each passing car. Plenty of those cars don’t match any list of known code violators or stolen vehicles. Big-city police departments especially, civil libertarians say, are in a position to record tens of millions of driver details every year.

According to the ACLU:

[License-plate readers] raise serious privacy concerns because of the system’s ability to monitor and track the movements of all vehicles, including those registered to people who are not suspected of any crime. Without restrictions, law enforcement agencies can and do store the data gathered by the license-plate readers forever, allowing them to monitor where you have traveled and when you traveled there over an extended period of time. In fact, a key selling point for vendors is the system’s ability to track drivers.

Motorola’s own product literature indeed emphasizes these unique capabilities pointing out that the readers can “quietly note the time and location” when a “vehicle of interest” passes an officer. The collected information is then loaded into a program called Back Office System Software, or BOSS, a Motorola sales pitch says:

[Plate readers] can generate vast amounts of data: database hits, GPS coordinates, time of day, photographs, plate numbers and more. Back at headquarters, BOSS turns this data into useful intelligence. … Users can query the data using multiple search parameters including time, date, full or partial plate, location and user. BOSS can also map all locations related to a single plate to track vehicle movements. The BOSS web interface allows data to be easily shared across multiple locations and agencies.

Eighteen police departments in Washington state are relying on them, but the ACLU says that only two states nationally have established restrictions for how data collected from the readers can be used. While license-plate readers have been in operation for some time now, the ACLU attributes a surge in their popularity to improvements in the technology and the availability of federal grants to finance them, including funds from President Obama’s Recovery Act.

As seen here, Recovery Act spending figures show that agencies across the country are seeking license-plate readers with stimulus cash.

An almost giddy Charlie Beck, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, told “Government Technology” in 2008 that the difference is like fishing with a net instead of a line. Safeguards can be put in place that protect the privacy rights of citizens, he said, but plate readers aren’t going anywhere. And Beck, too, puts a premium on the fact that they can document automobile locations. “The real value comes from the long-term investigative uses of being able to track vehicles – where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing – and tie that to crimes that have occurred or that will occur … The hope is to take all the readings and put them into one database for when you’ve got another jurisdiction or state looking for a car that may have shown up here.”

Now might be a good time to catch up on parking tickets before a license-plate reader identifies you and all your neighbors as good candidates for the boot.

G.W. Schulz joined the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008 to launch its ongoing homeland security project. Read the project’s blog, Elevated Risk, here.


  • Tim Furey

    The unnecessary data should not be recorded. However, this does not seem as dangerous as most civil rights issues. These kinds of things sit in databases, uselessly taking up space. Sometimes it’s stolen, leaked, whatever. Rarely does this kind of thing form the panopticon horror story that people shape it up to be.

  • Jerre L.

    So whats the big deal? We bought a new car two years ago and the loan company has a GPS tracker in it so if our payment or insurance is late they will track the car and shut it down! Yeah it sucks but it’s also a safety device…if the car is stolen it can be tracked and shut down then also. I think the only people that are truly against this new technology are those that have something to hide! And maybe with this new tracker in place some insurance rate may go down!!? I say lets welcome this new system and see more criminals going to jail!

  • Norma Russell

    WHat are you people thinking?? or rather should I say Not thinking!!! The government knows too much about all of us as it is. There is no need for this to happen except

  • Norma Russell

    As I was saying! except for BIG BROTHER TO KEEP AN EYE ON YOU! One day soon they will tell you when and where and how long you can be gone. They will say this side of the strett can move today but the other side can’t. Poeple open your eyes and repent!!!! Jesus IS coming back very soon

  • Tweets that mention License-plate readers becoming a fixture in local police arsenals | Need to Know | PBS —

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by D.A. Gutierrez and Vulgar Verbalist, Need to Know. Need to Know said: Electronic license plate readers – great for catching criminals, but possibly another privacy hazard: [...]

  • Alex McCarthy

    The invasion of privacy continues.

    Far from being an issue where only the guilty need worry, the ramifications are potentially enormous. As it is, the government spends far too much time spying on it’s own citizens, when clearly the focus needs to move off-shore.

    Oh, Norma, if you really think Jesus is coming soon, shouldn’t you be lacing up your Nikes and taking a big swig of the purple Kool Aid?

  • songweasel

    jerre, jerre, jerre…you might want to rethink your “if you’re not doing anything wrong” philosophy…exactly who determines what’s “wrong” or what’s “something to hide?” let’s use the example of a hospital in a crime ridden neighborhood. each week there’s a shooting nearby. employees go to and fro to work at said hospital. now they get to be tracked and possibly questioned, perhaps while on the other side of town, because they showed a pattern of being “around” a bad area when crimes occurred? do they have “something to hide?”

  • Mickey

    Looks like someday soon, we will all be able to track anyone, anywhere. Good? bad? Who knows? However, if one wants to be “invisible” in this brav n world, you could live a life without a mobile phone or blueberry, etc. You could take the train or bus. You could choose to live where there is no facial recognition hardware at the local stbuks. But, you ask, why should I have to? You should not. A long dead American president once said something like, “If you give up a little freedom for a little security, you may soon have neither.” The narco-Talbian, AQ and their innocent stoges have given our domestic law inforcement advocates just the excuse they have been looking for, for a long, long time. Until we put the terror issue to rest, we will most likely have to live with these new and troublesome devices and databases. But, when its all over with the 911 bad guys, won’t we be left with the law enforcement culture we used to defeat them? BNW

  • George P.

    This system a great idea and ever cop car should have one. This is no more intrusive than a cop car that has RADAR to stop speeding vehicles. There really is a very simple answer to the privacy issue. Have the system record information (time date GPS..ect) only on plates that come back as wanted, all other plates that are read by the system that are not wanted simply disappear like they never existed.

    Bingo, the result is the government cant track your moments and you get more criminals off the street. The Police have always been able to run your plates manually anyhow, this is simply a tool.

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  • linda

    Can they write person of interest for no good reason if they want to harass a person? It is open to abuse in this case. Please let me know

  • Glthm8

    I DO NOT want these pitbulls having my info. These are people with no training and no education and are likely the class bully. people with an infatuation for guns and violence lean toward these jobs. They are stopping people for no reason now.

  • Glthm8

    I meant to say that these psychos have no training or education.