In June of 2013, the now infamous whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked classified information from the National Security Agency, bringing to light the mass data collection programs carried out by our government every day. This disclosure spurred heated debate about how far the government should reach into our privacy- whether public safety justifies the intrusion. As it turns out the NSA is one of many organizations tracking our lives.
Whenever we get into our cars, for instance, we open ourselves to the possibility of being tracked. Automatic License Plate Readers (LPRs) are small cameras that capture data on drivers such as license plate number, time, date, and GPS location. This data has historically been used by law enforcement for tracking stolen cars and toll violations, but recently private companies, such as tow trucks and repossession crews, have been using LPRs as well. In both the private and public sector, these records are often kept indefinitely. LPRs collect millions of plates each year in communities with relatively small populations- Milpitas, California, for example, has a population of 67,000 residents and yet has 4.7 million stored plate reads in their database. This type of tracking results in multiple captures per vehicle and can be analyzed to deduce the habits of certain drivers. Where someone works out, how often they attend church, what type of medical services they receive, and countless other demographics can be determined by analyzing LPR data.
Many civil liberties groups, such as the ACLU, believe that LPRs encroach on the privacy guaranteed to us by the Fourth Amendment. Private LPR users justify LPRs by arguing that they do not have access to DMV registrations; so although a private LPR user may know the habits of a specific license plate number, they may not know the name of the driver. Nine states have passed laws to regulate LPR usage, four of which ban their private use altogether.
The future of LPRs remains unclear, but the question of deteriorating privacy is not yet in the rearview mirror