Here is what may have happened the last time you drove past a police car or under an overpass: A license plate reader (LPR) used its high-speed camera to capture a picture of your car. Software analyzed the photo, identified your plate number and checked it against a "hot car" list. If you are a criminal, driving a stolen car or even a car with a lapsed registration, the system sounded an alert and more than likely you were pulled over. But even if you are just another law-abiding citizen running errands, that photograph, along with the date, time and location information, is now stored in an ever growing police database.
License-plate readers are proliferating at an alarming rate according to a recently released ACLU report. In the not too distant past, LPRs were only used by major police departments, but thanks to falling costs and federal grants, LPRs are making their way to much smaller cities.
A 2011 survey found that almost 75 percent of the responding police departments were using LPRs. Even more striking was the fact that 85 percent of the agencies planned to increase their use of plate readers over the next five years.
The federal government has been instrumental in getting LPRs into the hands of local police. In 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Department of Homeland Security had funded over $50 million in grants for LPRs.
Once they have an LPR, police departments are using them -- a lot. They can be attached to overpasses, bridges and mounted on patrol cars. Most of the time you won't notice them, and will have no idea that your license plate has just been recorded.
Maryland state troopers told the ACLU that during a "normal patrol stance" a trooper could capture 7,000 plates in a single eight-hour patrol. All of those shifts add up. In Maryland, almost 75 percent of the law enforcement agencies feed data into the state data center. They collected 85 million plates in 2012.
Even small towns are collecting large amounts of data. Burbank, Ill., with a population of only 29,000, managed to scan 706,918 license plates between August 2011 and July 2012.
License plate readers are great for collecting plate data but the jury is still out on whether they actually prevent crime. The ACLU examined the data from Maryland and found that of the 29 million plates recorded through May of this year, only 0.2 percent were hits.
Furthermore, of that 0.2 percent a whopping 97 percent were for minor violations like driving with a suspended registration. Small towns were no more successful. Of Burbank's 706,918 plate reads, only 0.3 percent were a hit.
A 2010 George Mason University study found similar results. Cynthia Lum, one of the lead authors says, "Our study found that LPR had no detrimental or preventative effect on crime. Auto theft has been declining for years, not because of LPRs but because of better anti-theft technology and people locking their car doors. Many of the hits are for cars that have been abandoned, most cars are eventually recovered without LPR."
Police disagree, claiming LPRs are very effective. Detective Fredrick Roth of the Philadelphia Police Real Time Crime Center says, "Our LPR system has helped us recover several stolen vehicles."
LPRs can be deployed during a bank robbery and collect plate numbers en route, and help law enforcement respond to carjackings, kidnappings and Amber Alerts. They are also being used to combat more serious crimes, like terrorism, say police.
The city of Freeport, Texas, recently installed 12 readers at the major entrances to the city. While they certainly will be used to locate stolen cars and catch people wanted on a warrant, Chief of Police Daniel Pennington has other concerns in mind. "One of the primary reasons the camera system was installed is to harden the region to attack/crime. There are 32 chemical facilities in the area and a shipping port, making us a target-rich environment for those wanting to cause great harm," says Pennington.
Stories of major crimes being solved are not rampant but there are a few. Police in Germany used an LPR to track down a trucker who was responsible for over 700 shootings at other cars. The LPR was integral to solving the crime, according to reports.
LPRs are particularly effective at alerting police to drivers operating on a suspended license, with an expired registration or without car insurance. If your plate generates a hit, you may be in for an expensive ticket.
In St. George, Utah, one police officer reported he issued 400 tickets to uninsured motorists in the city over an 18-month period.
"Driving with a suspended license can result in a dramatic increase in your insurance premium depending on where you live. In North Carolina, for example, it's 8 points which equals a 195 percent increase in car insurance rates," says Penny Gusner, consumer analyst for CarInsurance.com.
According to an Insurance.com analysis of 490,000 car insurance quotes, here are the average annual rate increases if you get ticketed for the following:
The increased use of license plate readers is creating serious privacy concerns, according to the ACLU. As local and regional police departments gather, pool and share LPR data, enormous databases of driver locations are being created.
License plate readers capture and store a driver's location when recording a plate. A driver might be tagged outside of a doctor's office, workplace or church. All of this data is making it possible for law enforcement officials to piece together a fairly accurate picture of a person's life.
The ACLU report contends that LPR information could easily lead to abusive tracking, institutional abuse and discriminatory tracking. Anyone with access to the system and a grudge could potentially track an ex-wife, boss or workplace rival -- the options are endless, say privacy advocates.
The Wall Street Journal referenced a 1998 case in Washington, D.C., where a police lieutenant pled guilty to running plates outside of a gay bar and then extorting the vehicle owners.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the data there is a bit of a Wild West mentality, with no consistent set of laws or guidelines. Plate scans, regardless of whether they are a "hit" or not, are often stored for a long time, in some cases indefinitely. Brookline, Mass., keeps the data for just 14 days but Mesquite, Texas, plans to keep their scans forever. In Utah, police keep LPR data for two years.
Policies regarding who has access to the data vary widely from city to city, with Scarsdale, N.Y., telling the ACLU that "the use of the [license plate readers] is only limited by the officer's imagination."
Currently, only five states have passed laws regulating the use of license plate readers.
Law enforcement, for the most part, disagree on the privacy issue. They claim that LPR's simply speed up a process that cops have been doing manually for years and drivers should have no expectation of privacy while out in public.
The ACLU made the following recommendations for LPR use:
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