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Your Location Data is Being Shared to Anti-Abortion States and More: Automatic License Plate Readers

Posted by Sara Cooper | Jul 12, 2023 | 0 Comments

While driving on the streets to your friend's house or finally getting off the freeway to get to work, tracking who is getting from one place to another is a form of police surveillance.

Automatic license plate readers, known as ALPRs, are usually mounted on police cars or on public infrastructure such as a bridge or a stop sign, and these cameras take photos of hundreds of thousands of plates in a short span of time. The information captured from the plates with the license plate number, date, and the time and location of the phone are collected into sharing systems.

Eventually being maintained into databases that law enforcement looks into, information of other innocent constituents is also kept and are sometimes not erased depending on the policy the jurisdiction follows. The lack of restrictions on our right to privacy are undermined by city councils, and these readers are now sending plate information over to anti-abortion states for possible discovery of people who travelled to legal states in receiving abortion procedures.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation who ran a months-long investigation involving hundreds of requests for public records obtained by police departments in the state of California, had discovered that detailed driving profiles of local residents were being shared with out-of-state agencies.

EFF has stated that sharing any ALPR data with out-of-state or federal law enforcement agencies in states that criminalize abortion also undermines California's extensive efforts to protect reproductive health privacy, applying AB 1242 passed in 2022, prohibiting state and local agencies from providing abortion-related information to out-of-state agencies. SB 34 is also violated with the action of any ALPR data shared with federal law enforcement or out-of-state agencies. These regulations also apply to private entities.

This data is kept by two companies:

Flock Safety – the U.S. industry leader in automatic license plate recognition cameras (ALPR), has already installed devices in more than 1,500 cities and 40 states which capture data from more than 12 billion vehicles per year.

  • Annual Valuation: $3.1 billion

Motorola Solutions (also owns Vigilant Solutions) – A former cell-phone company known as Motorola Mobility turned public safety technology provider has added a new license plate capture tool to it law enforcement suite with the acquisition of VaaS International Holdings today for $445 million in cash and equity.

  • Annual Valuation: $150 billion

Private camera owners that are primarily investigators and federal agencies, are able create their own “hot lists” that basically gives them alerts on when listed plates are detected from the ALPRs. Flock and Motorola also run plates for lists organized by state police and the FBI, and the data is available to any of their law enforcement customers.

This mass surveillance tool is not expanded for their original use in finding stolen cars and finding vehicles that are flagged for AMBER Alerts but are now relied on criminalizing folks that can even be mistaken for suspected individuals that might not be in the driven car at the time the cameras take the photo. These movements made by the located vehicle, triggers the Fourth Amendment.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the Supreme Court in 1979 decided that “an individual operating or traveling in an automobile does not lose all reasonable exception of privacy simply because the automobile and its use are subject to government regulation.” The Center continues to emphasize that the Court reserves the question of whether such “dragnet type law enforcement practices” merit the application of different constitutional principles.”

Innovations of mass surveillance tools must be applied to the Carpenter method in ensuring the capacity of a technology is to be considered by the Court. However, they have not addressed whether the data collected by ALPRs require a warrant despite appeals courts hearing challenges to ALPR database searches. Much of the result is a dead end, with avoidance of the impact ALPR data has on civilians.

This technology still proven to have violated privacy protections under state law by many documented high-profile incidents, recommendations have been pointed out to agencies and the public on what should be demanded in changes with ALPRs: Adopt retention limits and require warrants for searching historical data, institute a two-step scanning process, require verification of hot list data, require transparency and invite community input into ALPR use and policies, maintain audit logs, conduct audits for disparate impact, and conduct audits to ensure effective safeguards.

The expansion of ALPR technology is still being observed by organizations that focus on mass surveillance tools that involve law enforcement, with crucial findings that ALPR data is shared with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) per example.

If there is unheard or non-compiled information that is collected from ALPR databases, please contact Electronic Frontier Foundation's (EFF) Investigator Researcher Dave Maass via email: [email protected].

For one of the new letters from EFF, ACLU NorCal, and ACLU SoCal:

For information on how ALPRs threaten abortion access:

For general information about ALPRs:

Related Content:

Supporting Documents:

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