It’s not something that gets a lot of attention, but there are ALPRs all over the place.
The automated license plate readers are technology systems that capture plate numbers and add them to a database, along with the time and the location.
The information is used to track down fugitives and much more.
And it’s that “much more” that has privacy advocates alarmed.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation and a public records information site called MuckRock are joining forces to track down what happens when your tag is recorded in the database.
The privacy groups already know such information goes to police agencies, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, the U.S. Marshals service and other agencies. Even those with nothing to do with traffic.
Now they’ve launched an effort to find out more about how the data is used and who has access to it. They plan to file Freedom of Information requests with about 1,000 data-using agencies.
EFF said police departments are routinely sharing ALPR data with “a wide variety of agencies that may be difficult to justify.”
“Police often shared with the DEA, FBI and U.S. Marshals – but they also shared with federal agencies with a less clear interest, such as the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs and the Air Force base at Fort Eustis,” EFF said.
California agencies were also sharing with public universities on the East Coast, airports in Tennessee and Texas, and agencies that manage public assistance programs, such as food stamps and indigent health care.
“In some cases, the records indicate the agencies were sharing with private actors,” EFF said.
Even small-town cops in Georgia see the movements of personal vehicles from across the country.
In the next few weeks, the two organizations will file approximately 1,000 public records requests with agencies that have deals with Vigilant Solutions, one of the nation’s largest vendors of ALPR surveillance technology and software services.
“We’re seeking documentation showing who’s sharing ALPR data with whom,” EFF said. “We are also requesting information on how many plates each agency scanned in 2016 and 2017 and how many of those plates were on predetermined ‘hot lists’ of vehicles suspected of being connected to crimes.”
Vigilant Solutions boasts that joining “the largest law enforcement LPR sharing network is as easy as adding a friend on your favorite social media platform.”
EFF explained the company makes it possible for police agencies to gain unrestricted, 24/7 access to a database of “hundreds of other agencies around the country.”
The systems reveal where people drive, where they park their car and for how long.
From that information, it’s possible to determine “where they work, socialize, worship, shop, sleep at night and seek medical care or other services.”
“ALPR allows your license plate to be used as a tracking beacon and a way to map your social networks,” EFF explained. “Here’s the question: who is on your local police department’s and sheriff office’s ALPR friend lists?”
The concern is that few know what happens to the information.
“Perhaps you live in a ‘sanctuary city.’ There’s a very real chance local police are sharing ALPR data with Immigration & Customs Enforcement, Customs & Border Patrol, or one of their subdivisions,” EFF said.
“Perhaps you live thousands of miles from the South. You’d be surprised to learn that scores of small towns in rural Georgia have round-the-clock access to your ALPR data. This includes towns like Meigs, which serves a population of 1,000 and did not even have full-time police officers until last fall.”
One of the databases is known as the National Vehicle Locator System, which transmits travel details to “more than 500 government agencies, the identities of which have never been publicly disclosed.
The groups “hope to create a detailed snapshot of the ALPR mass surveillance network linking law enforcement and other government agencies nationwide. Currently, the only entity that has the definitive list is Vigilant Solutions, which, as a private company, is not subject to state or federal public record disclosure laws. So far, the company has not volunteered this information, despite reaping many millions in tax dollars.”