'Big Brother' is Watching Over You – License Plate Trackers
Information and Theories 3/27/14
By: Sarah Wilson
Across New York State, from tiny villages to the mean streets of New York City, 'Big Brother' is watching your every move in one of the most unlikely ways….by tracking the activity and personal information associated with license plates. There are more than 1,200 police cars that are mounted with special cameras on the trunk, which take snapshots of every plate of every car that they drive by. With the ability to take 100 pictures per minute, each camera (referred to as automatic license plate readers) have some people concerned with possible breaches of privacy…and we'll explain why…
The reasoning behind why your friendly police officers are taking constant images of license plates is to catch criminals, as the pictures can wind up in a "statewide hotlist" that identifies cars that are stolen; have a suspended registration; or being driven by a wanted individual. An initial thought regarding the camera license plate readers in New York is this is a good thing…we wouldn't want a drunken driver wreaking havoc on a highway or unsafe vehicles out on the road.
But, there is another side to these camera-equipped police cars that could pose a bit of an issue.
The majority of plate pictures and other identifying details are not viewed by anyone, but there is the possibility because with these photos, comes the ability for someone to pinpoint where millions of innocent, non-criminal drivers have been.
That's right, this little piece of intelligent technology that can help solve crimes and stop violent acts also has the power to document the whereabouts of countless law-abiding citizens. Not only are photographic images captured, but also vehicle details, time, date, and GPS location for all the plates the reader sees are also gathered. The information that the reader retrieves is often downloaded to a server. The images of license plates that do not raise any red flags are stashed away in these databases that can stay in the system for months and even for many years – involving millions of plate pictures across the nation.
And…with like all forms of technology, the fear of abuse is strong.
There are no laws in New York State concerning the regulation of how records can be used, or how long these types of records should be stored, proving that the government has not kept up with legislation regarding advanced technology of this kind.
However, the state of New Hampshire didn't waste any time making their opinions known. Lawmakers voted in January to ban the license plate readers with the exception of limited use in toll plazas.
As of right now, departments using the technology are allowed to make up their own rules, and they can range from keeping no records at all to storing the records for five or more years. This has led organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, to speak out against the use of the readers because of the potential danger of complete strangers having access to such personal information.
License plate reading is becoming an increasingly touchy subject, and just last month, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security nixed a plan by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hire a private company to construct a nationwide database of license plate scans once the plans hit the public.