License-Plate Scans Aid Crime-Solving but Spur Little Privacy Debate

License plate readers feed huge databases with detailed information about Americans’ driving habits and help solve crimes, although the public has little idea of the extent of the data collected or how it is used.

The vast network of automatic license plate scanners that has been growing for decades makes it nearly impossible to drive anywhere in the United States without being watched. Scanners first appeared on telephone poles and police cars, then at toll booths, on bridges and at parking lots. Today, scanners are routinely installed on municipal tow trucks and garbage trucks, which collect images of the license plates of passing vehicles as they make their rounds.

Scanner data has become an important tool for law enforcement agencies, from local police to the Department of Justice, which does not require a warrant to access it. For example, reading license plates played a significant role in the arrest of a number of suspects involved in the June 6 riots in front of the Capitol. January involved, including

Dominic Madden,

an employee of the New York City Sanitation Department who called in sick the day before the deadly attack.

In New Jersey, license plate scanners captured Madden’s car as he crossed the Delaware Memorial Bridge, according to court documents. His vehicle was spotted in Maryland on I-95 and I-895 and was seen two days later returning to New York on the same route, according to the indictment.

The findings supported the charges of burglary of a building with restricted access, obstruction of governmental activities, and disturbance of the peace. Mr. Madden pleaded not guilty in federal court in January. Mr. Madden’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Scanners that automatically capture images of every license plate they identify represent a level of surveillance that Americans often overlook, along with social media, online searches, mobile phone apps and credit card purchases. Private companies hand over the images of license plates, including time, date and location, and then share that information with the police, who essentially have free access to it.

The size of these data sets is difficult to measure. But Vigilant Solutions, a division of Motorola Solutions Inc. and one of the largest private data and scanner providers, boasted a decade ago that it had 450 million license plate scans in its commercial database, with 35 million new license plates added each month.

According to the company’s marketing materials, the database now contains more than nine billion scans of license plates of U.S. citizens. That means Avenger, one of dozens of companies in its industry, now has more than 30 license plate recorders for every vehicle on the nation’s roads.

We would not work with technologies that we think do not outweigh the benefits to society, he said.

Paul Steinberg,

Senior Vice President of Technology at Motorola, which owns Vigilant.

License plate scanner on the hull of the Baltimore Lantern, which also contains a surveillance camera. For the first time, such scanners have been installed on telephone poles and police cars, and now also on many garbage trucks.


Photo illustration: WSJ; Photo source: Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Some consider the disadvantages of remoteness to be significant.

License plate readers are a mass surveillance technology.

Dave Maass,

Director of Investigations at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for more privacy. They collect data on everyone, whether there is a connection to a crime or not, Maass said, and they keep that data for a long time.

License plate readers are part of a growing arsenal of law enforcement surveillance tools that also includes social media monitoring, facial recognition software, internet-connected doorbells and camera networks, all of which have privacy implications.

They collect data on everyone, whether there is a connection to the crime or not, and keep it for a long time.

– Dave Maass, director of research for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, privacy advocate.

The technology has raised concerns about misuse, misidentification and the volume of data collection, with studies showing error rates of up to 10% or more depending on the technology used. Some scanner systems only read the license plate and cannot detect the status of the plate, leading to confusion.

Mistakes can be constant. In August 2020, police in Aurora, Colorado, received a match to the license plate of a stolen vehicle. They approached the car, guns drawn, and ordered the black family – children ages 6, 12, 14 and 17 – to lie down on the sidewalk. The video of the confrontation sparked outrage across the country. The city’s police chief apologized and later said the family driving the Colorado-registered minivan happened to have the same license plate number as the stolen motorcycle from Montana.

The federal government has been subsidizing scanner positions in local police departments for years. Vigilant and its market competitors provide license plate data to local police who have their own scanners attached to telephone poles or patrol cars. The police can share the data collected through the Vigilant system with other police forces across the country.

Details of data processing and data protection technologies

Vigilant also sells the same technology to other companies and effectively delegates it to law enforcement. He sells his z’s. B. Tow trucks engaged in repossession and the license plate images collected by these trucks during their rounds are made available to police through the Vigilant systems.

Vigilant also has agreements to collect data from private companies such as ParkMobile, a parking management company that helps more than 350 cities manage municipal parking systems. A ParkMobile spokesperson said the company is partnering with Vigilant on 12 of the thousands of parking lots it serves across the country.

Fast food restaurants are experimenting with the use of pay-at-the-wheel technology, and some technology providers are allowing them to share their data with networks accessible to law enforcement.

The value of solving the crime is undeniable. In 2017, an Ohio State University student named.

Reagan Stamps

was reported missing and found dead. His body was discovered in a park, but his silver Acura was gone. With no suspects or leads, Ohio police turned to the Vigilant database and got a hit on his car, which was parked in what appeared to be a suburb of Columbus.

Upon arrival, police took DNA samples from the cigarette butts in the car, leading to her arrest and conviction. The symbolic killer.

Jimmy Law,

The prosecutor in the case noted that license plate readers played an important role in solving the case.


Were you surprised by the information collected from your license plate, such as. B. if you have a parking ticket? Join the discussion below.

Vigilance Scan was helpful in reconstructing the habits of a suspected thief in Hartford, Connecticut. Police used the company’s database to track the movements of a dented green Mitsubishi, which appeared on Amazon Ring surveillance video as a vehicle that may have belonged to the suspect. The Vigilant database found several images of the Mitsubishi parked in front of a nearby Hartford home, allowing police to link a GPS tracking device to the car.

The suspect was then charged with stealing more than $1,200 worth of merchandise from various residences in late 2019. A search warrant was necessary to install the tracking system, but not to obtain the images, which contain important details about the suspect’s whereabouts.

The defendants have not disputed the use of these incriminating records. However, the Supreme Court has recognized the privacy implications of new technologies. In a landmark 2018 decision in Carpenter v. In the United States, the court ruled that the police needed a warrant to access the cell phone data.

Privacy advocates say the ruling, in which the court saw its role as erecting a barrier against overly intrusive police surveillance, could also apply to licensed sign readers, if the case is decided correctly.

cameras in Lauderhill, Florida, built by Rekor, a company whose license plate readers some police departments are trying to implement to address privacy concerns.


Recora Systems

According to EFF’s Maass, your actual travel habits can reveal highly personal information about you, such as. B. What doctors you see, where you stay, where you work, who you meet.

Some local police departments have tried to deploy platform scanning networks to accommodate privacy concerns. Mount Juliet, Tenn. – a small town outside Nashville – has chosen Vigilant competitor Rekor to install a system called Guardian Shield in 2019, which consists of 39 cameras placed at strategic access points in the community.

The police department only keeps the data for 30 days and does not share it with other law enforcement agencies. Dispatchers are alerted when a vehicle identified as stolen or a vehicle involved in a violent crime enters the city so that police can respond.

The city says the Guardian Shield system has contributed to 99 arrests since it became fully operational in April 2020, including the arrest of two murder suspects and the recovery of numerous stolen vehicles.

Juliette’s police chief.

Tyler Chandler.

the Department’s communication to the public of the benefits of the system is appreciated. You have to keep the public’s trust because it’s really a partnership, he said.

It’s not about us versus them, said Chandler, who added that residents’ acceptance of the tools is essential to improving public safety. They are now supporters of the program. They support our actions.

Email Byron Tau at [email protected].

Modifications and enhancements
Paul Steinberg is senior vice president of technology at Motorola. An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that he was senior vice president and CTO of Motorola. (corrected March 10, 2021)

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