Small cameras that record and store our license plate information are popping up almost everywhere, raising alarms around the country. In Massachusetts, privacy advocates are urging the state Legislature to regulate the data. But others say there's something standing in the way – the U.S. Constitution.
First, the basics: Automatic license plate readers are small cameras that can be mounted on bridges, police cars, tow trucks, entrances to parking lots, toll booths — practically anywhere. They can take pictures of thousands of license plates per minute, and record the time, date and place the car was seen.
Then all the information is sent to a vast database. The data is stored by police departments to find stolen cars and solve crimes. But it's also collected by private companies and sold.
"Let’s pretend I am a repo truck driver,” said Andy Bucholz, who designed some of the first license plate reader equipment. "I may run across a plate ABC 123 several times as I’m driving around. And I’m not looking at it today."
But maybe tomorrow the repo man is called by a bank, which asks him, "Can you seize ABC 123? Because the owner's not paying his bills."
"You could look in the data and say, 'Oh, I’ve been running across that one over on main street all the time, I’ll just go by and pick it up,'" Bucholz said.
Privacy advocates say automatic license plate readers have the potential to create permanent records of virtually everywhere we have driven, creating opportunities for abuse.
"In many ways these databases know more about ourselves than we do," said Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. "Where were you last October 14? Can you document every place you went? Well I can’t either but a big database probably could."
Civil rights groups worry the police could use the information to target minorities.
Arlene Isaacson of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus pointed to a case where a Washington cop pleaded guilty to looking up license plates near a gay bar and blackmailing the cars' owners.
"Some closeted gay folks and LGBT folks do not want it known that every Friday they are parked outside the gay club in town, or the HIV clinic, or the doctor that treats transgender people," Isaacson said. "This is life-altering information, so personally important that neither the government nor a company wishing to make a profit should have the right to collect it, keep it, share it.”
Massachusetts lawmakers are considering several bills that would ban the private use of license plate scanners. They would also require law enforcement to delete its plate data after 48 hours.
Chris Metaxas, CEO of Digital Recognition Network, a subsidiary of Vigilant Solutions — which operates one of the largest databases of license plate information in the country, says his company's work is protected by the first amendment because the photography acts as constitutionally protected speech.
"There’s absolutely no expectation of privacy in a license plate," Metaxas says. "It contains no personal or identifiable information. LPR technology is simply photography. It’s taking a picture that has no expectation of privacy and it is in public view."
Bucholz explains the argument this way: He says anyone can just walk down the street and take a photo of a car, including its license plate.
“Imagine if you’re a busy bee and you decided, 'I’m going to take a photo of 10,000 plates today,' and you could," he said. "So where did the automation of you taking a picture make it illegal?"
Bucholz also argues we shouldn't expect much privacy these days. Cell phone companies are tracking our GPS locations. Google collects massive amounts of personal data. And let's not even start on the NSA.
But privacy advocates say those examples are no reason to stop caring about who has our personal information.
"The notion that we can already track people wherever they go is simply changed by the fact that this is automatic and secret," she said. "We’re scooping up tens of thousands and now millions and even billions of people’s license plates and retaining it indefinitely."
More than a dozen states have passed or are considering legislation that would restrict the use of license plate readers or the storage of the data. Even if Massachusetts passes such a law, it’s not a done deal. In Utah last month, one company filed a First Amendment lawsuit to overturn a ban.