License Plate Readers Are UnAmerican: Don’t Track and Store the Data of Innocent Drivers

By MICHAEL EHRENREICH
Why would anyone not engaged in a sporting event wear a number that identifies himself? Why then is this considered normal on an automobile? 

For the century or so that license plates have been in use, it could not previously be argued that the existence of license plates enabled wholesale privacy violations. The sight 
of a police officer diligently jotting down plate numbers did not provoke outrage. With the introduction of Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) this has changed. Using 
police car-mounted and stationary cameras, these devices scan thousands of plates per minute, recording the location of your vehicle at any given moment, and comparing the 
plate number against various databases and “hot lists.” 

Tens of thousands of these cameras are now in use across the United States. Utilizing this technology, state governments track the behavior of their citizens on an industrial 
scale. Over time, a profile is created for any individual, revealing myriad personal details including places frequented, friend visited, and events attended. To the delight of law 
enforcement, a person can likely be located at any time based on this data. 

This information is stored, sometimes indefinitely, on the feeble justification that the driver may at some point be involved in a crime. Although there is legitimate law 
enforcement benefit from ALPR, such as recovering stolen vehicles or identifying a felon, this accounts for a tiny percentage of captured plates. Built on this flimsy edifice, 
ALPR ensnares virtually every law-abiding driving citizen.

It is argued that since a license plate is clearly displayed on a vehicle driven on a public road, there is no expectation of privacy. Therefore, reading the license plate 
information, either manually by an officer or automatically by ALPR, does not constitute an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment. This would be true but for the 
fact that the display of license plates is coerced for the specific purpose of facilitating surveillance. Furthermore, although there is no expectation of privacy on a public 
road, there is certainly an expectation that one’s every movement is not logged, cross-referenced and stored indefinitely. There are degrees of subjective expectations regarding 
privacy. 

It is also asserted that if traditional police work could have achieved the same ends as the use of tracking technology then an illegal search has not occurred. This is misleading. 
Traditional police work could not track the movement of tens of thousands of citizens not engaged in any criminal activity. Routine police work can track the movement of a finite 
set of appropriately chosen targets. The post hoc argument that any specific individual could have been tracked with conventional police activity is fallacious. 

The generation and storage of reams of data on the movements of ordinary citizens creates profound risk for abuse by law enforcement and government, profit-seeking 
businesses, and criminals who might illegally access this information. If a nefarious use is possible, it will undoubtedly occur. 

The license plate reader genie is out of the bottle and will resist efforts to be coaxed back. Regulation must quickly be adopted limiting the use of ALPR-derived data to instances 
when criminal activity is immediately identified. Data about the movements of innocent citizens must not be stored for any more than the briefest of periods. Safeguards must be 
put in place to prevent abuse even by authorized users, for example tracking one’s spouse or co-worker.  

Inasmuch as analysis of ALPR-data can provide a detailed picture of an individual’s visits to doctors and hospitals, it should be awarded no lesser safeguards than those 
afforded by the Healthcare Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the ubiquitous law governing the privacy and sharing of medical records. Finally, regulations 
must be put in place restricting the creation of private ALPR databases, such as those in use by MVTrac and others in the vehicle repossession industry. 

Transporting one’s person is an inalienable right, incorporated under life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. While driving an automobile can be regulated by government, 
it is not a privilege granted by government. Government regulation of automobile operation must therefore be limited to measures necessary for public safety or other 
overriding public good. The requirement of license plate display is not within that scope if the presence of machine readable plates opens the door to massive privacy 
violations. Although there are circumstances where mandatory readable license plates are appropriate, they should be voluntary for the law-abiding public. 

Michael Ehrenreich, MD, is the founder of SOMA Skin & Laser and the inventor of the Zigo, which is the coolest bike ever.

License Plate Readers Are UnAmerican: Don’t Track and Store the Data of Innocent Drivers