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Helpful tool or dangerous invasion of privacy?

New Tracking Frontier: Your License Plates

Police forces and private companies are scanning auto license plates and building huge databases of location information--whether or not the owners of the cars have done anything wrong. WSJ's Julia Angwin reports.
For more than two years, the police in San Leandro, Calif., photographed Mike Katz-Lacabe's Toyota Tercel almost weekly. They have shots of it cruising along Estudillo Avenue near the library, parked at his friend's house and near a coffee shop he likes. In one case, they snapped a photo of him and his two daughters getting out of a car in his driveway.

Mr. Katz-Lacabe isn't charged with, or suspected of, any crime. Local police are tracking his vehicle automatically, using cameras mounted on a patrol car that record every nearby vehicle—license plate, time and location.

"Why are they keeping all this data?" says Mr. Katz-Lacabe, who obtained the photos of his car through a public-records request. "I've done nothing wrong."

Until recently it was far too expensive for police to track the locations of innocent people such as Mr. Katz-Lacabe. But as surveillance technologies decline in cost and grow in sophistication, police are rapidly adopting them. Private companies are joining, too. At least two start-up companies, both founded by "repo men"—specialists in repossessing cars or property from deadbeats—are currently deploying camera-equipped cars nationwide to photograph people's license plates, hoping to profit from the data they collect.

The rise of license-plate tracking is a case study in how storing and studying people's everyday activities, even the seemingly mundane, has become the default rather than the exception. Cellphone-location data, online searches, credit-card purchases, social-network comments and more are gathered, mixed-and-matched, and stored in vast databases.

Data about a typical American is collected in more than 20 different ways during everyday activities, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. Fifteen years ago, more than half of these types of surveillance tools were unavailable or not in widespread use, says Col. Lisa Shay, a professor of electrical engineering at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who studies tracking.

"What would the 1950s Soviet Union have done with the technology we have now?" says Col. Shay. "We don't have a police state in this country, but we have the technology."

Law-enforcement agents say they are using this information only to catch bad guys.

During the past five years, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has distributed more than $50 million in federal grants to law-enforcement agencies—ranging from sprawling Los Angeles to little Crisp County, Ga., pop. 23,000—for automated license-plate recognition systems. A 2010 study estimates that more than a third of large U.S. police agencies use automated plate-reading systems.

The information captured is considerable. Through a public-records act request, The Journal obtained two years' worth of plate information from the Riverside County Sheriff's Department in California. From Sept. 10, 2010, to Aug. 27, 2012, the sheriff's cameras captured about 6 million license-plate scans.

The sheriff's 49 camera-equipped vehicles scanned about 2 million unique plates. The average plate in the database was scanned three times over the two-year period. Less than 1% of plates were tracked extensively—hundreds of times, and occasionally thousands.

First Amendment Issues
A report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police warns that "recording driving habits" could raise First Amendment concerns. It noted that plate readers might record "vehicles parked at addiction-counseling meetings, doctors' offices, health clinics, or even staging areas for political protests." The association urged members to consider establishing "more specific criteria for granting access" to the information and to designate it only for "official use."

The Surveillance Economy
License-plate databases contain revealing information about people's locations. Police can generally obtain it without a judge's approval. By comparison, prosecutors typically get a court order to install GPS trackers on people's cars or to track people's location via cellphone.

License-plate databases don't contain names and addresses of vehicle owners, although that information is available from separate state Department of Motor Vehicle databases. The Driver's Privacy Protection Act, passed in 1994 to thwart stalkers, limits public access to the DMV's information but nevertheless allows car owners' names and addresses to be obtained by government agencies, police, private investigators, insurers, researchers, private toll operators and, in some states, journalists. The data is still sometimes subject to abuse.

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Asked by Ballad at 3:49 PM on Jul. 19, 2013 in Politics & Current Events

Level 45 (193,996 Credits)
This question is closed.
Answers (6)
  • Yes, invasion of privacy. Our expectation of privacy should be much smaller when we are out in public. People can overhear our conversations, see the places we shop, see what we buy, etc. But, recording our travels based on our plates is an invasion of privacy. Our comings and goings aren't the business of the government until we break the law.

    Answer by May-20 at 5:23 PM on Jul. 19, 2013

  • I saw this on the news. It should frighten everyone.

    Answer by Dardenella at 3:58 PM on Jul. 19, 2013

  • I don't like being watched all the time and I am a law abiding citizen. I would like to be just left alone.

    Answer by NannyB. at 4:04 PM on Jul. 19, 2013

  • More at

     ^^^ Clicky -I saw this story this morning & was a bit on the fence about it until I saw a woman & her children pictured as they exited their car parked in a driveway. We all know things that get deleted, never really go away forever. Not sure I want "Big Brother" watching more of my every move.


    Answer by mrsmom110 at 8:02 PM on Jul. 19, 2013

  • I don't get why its a problem...they already have your info if they run the plate...

    so what if they take a picture

    Answer by charlotsomtimes at 8:34 PM on Jul. 19, 2013

  • I don't get why its a problem...they already have your info if they run the plate...

    so what if they take a picture

    If the plate is run, the owner of the car can be found. But the cameras are at intersections and even on tow trucks, so it's possible to track a car and see where it goes, when it returns, etc. So it would be possible to tell who someone is dating, where that person shops and visits, where she hangs out, and the like. Useful for tracking suspected terrorists, maybe. But it seems much more invasive to me.

    Comment by Ballad (original poster) at 11:19 PM on Jul. 19, 2013