America Tonight

The police are tracking you, so what happens if you track them?

Automatic license plate readers have changed the game for police, but privacy advocates warn your data is being misused

Hilary and Jon DeVary are licensed private investigators. Digging up information on other people is part of their jobs. Then, last year, the tables turned. After discovering that that their records were among thousands that had been inappropriately accessed by a former government employee, they requested an audit of who else had looked up their private data.

“We were in shock,” Jon told America Tonight.

The DeVarys estimate that there had been around 1,400 queries into their private information, with a spike after Hilary was featured on the local paper’s front page seven years ago, talking about her work busting cheating spouses. In the days after that, dozens of law enforcement agents, and even someone from the post office, looked up her DMV data. 

“They want to know where you live, and that is what scares me. You know, I’ve got kids now. It’s frightening,” said Hilary DeVary, breaking into tears. 

Liberty, security and just creepy

Law enforcement queries into Hilary DeVary's data peaked after she appeared on the front page of the local paper.
America Tonight

The DeVarys were unwitting victims of one of the most widespread cases of data abuse in Minnesota’s history. A state audit found that fully half of the state’s law enforcement employees were likely accessing state databases for questionable reasons. And Hilary DeVary is the 10th person to file a federal suit over misuse of driver’s license data it in just over a year.

“We have paid out tens of millions in the last five years because representatives of government that have illegally searched data,” said John Lesch, a state representative from the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

But Lesch’s greatest concern is a different form of data that law enforcement has begun collecting across the country that has far more potential for abuse. It’s gathered by license plate readers, or ALPRs.

“This technology allowed law enforcement to do something completely different,” Lesch explained, “which is essentially dragnet the entire population.”

Mounted in public places or on law enforcement vehicles, ALPRs scan the license plate of every car that passes, potentially thousands of plates per minute, and then crosschecks lists of stolen cars and wanted persons. The information, which includes photos, a timestamp and location, is retained – possibly indefinitely – in databases across the country. Sometimes it’s also shared by various agencies or sold to private companies with little to no regulation

Everyone’s under investigation

ALPRs can also track people’s movements, and identify all the vehicles at the scene of a crime. In sum, they make the job of catching bad guys a lot easier and cheaper.

“I’ve seen auto theft solved, homicide solved, stalking cases solved,” said inspector Rob Allen of Minnesota’s Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office. “It provided proof. We were able to show that the stalking suspect had been in the area of the victim’s home, dozens of times.”

“There’s no question that it helps police keep communities safer,” he added.

But privacy advocates say the use of ALPRs grazes people’s constitutional rights. Jennifer Lynch, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group, said ALPRs are collecting data on a scale that we’ve never seen before.

I actually couldn’t think of another surveillance technology that had the potential to be as invasive.

Jennifer Lynch

Privacy advocate

“It can tell who you associate with, which doctor you’re going to, whether you’re sleeping in a different house every night,” she said. “I actually couldn’t think of another surveillance technology that had the potential to be as invasive.”  

According to a 2012 report by The Associated Press, the New York Police Department used license plate readers to identify congregants as they arrived to pray at city mosques, as part of their ongoing surveillance of Muslims.

Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has been a leader in the campaign against ALPRs.

In New York, like in most of the country, there are no state regulations in how law enforcement agencies can use ALPR data. Only Maine and New Hampshire have any restrictions on the books, and a federal bill that would require all ALPR data to be erased after 30 days hasn’t attracted much support.

Activists and journalists have had a lot of trouble figuring out what data the police has, and who gets access to it. When the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union tried to find out what the Los Angeles Police Department was capturing with its license plate readers, and what its policies were on sharing the data, the department responded that it could not release the data because all the cars in the Los Angeles metropolitan area were under investigation.

In a blog post, Lynch wrote that this logic was a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which was added, “exactly to prevent law enforcement from conducting mass, suspicionless investigations under ‘general warrants’ that targeted no specific person or place and never expired.”

The EFF and ACLU’s lawsuit against the LAPD is still pending.

The right to data mine

Defenders of ALPRs say they are a powerful instrument of public safety, and able to prevent crimes like never before. Mike Sena, director of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, which has been aggressive in using ALPR data, said they could be used in the future to “geofence” – track anyone going in and out of an area.

“You can only imagine that the person that is a registered sex offender, whose vehicle is parked at your child’s elementary school,” said Sena. “Previously, the officer would drive right by. But now you have the ability once that alert goes off, ‘Let me go make contact with that person.’” 

Melissa Hill had a previous run-in with police, when she was issued a trespass notice for chalking an anti-war message on the sidewalk. The ACLU of Minnesota filed a lawsuit on her behalf, which was settled last year.

Starting in November 2012, Melissa Hill, a privacy activist in Minneapolis, decided to give the police a taste of their own medicine. Under public data practice laws, she requested the ALPR data of law enforcement license plates, and then posted it on her blog “Track the Police.”

According to an internal document, the Minneapolis police became worried that Hill would expose undercover operations.

“I found out they were mentioning my blog and myself by name, saying, ‘Be careful about parking your vehicles in public areas,’ because I was going around and taking photos of them and taking the ALPR data,” she told America Tonight. “I kind of got the sense that city was not very comfortable with people tracking their vehicles with the data that they were tracking us with.”

And when the Boston Globe requested ALPR data from the Boston Police Department last year, they were inadvertently given the full plate numbers and GPS locations of more than 40,000 vehicles. In light of the enormous privacy breach, the department decided in December to suspend its ALPR program indefinitely. Since then, the Department of Homeland Security has continued to give money to cities to buy ALPRs. 

Related News

Police, Privacy

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Police, Privacy

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter