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Police Have the Scary Capability to Track Wherever You're Driving

License-plate reading technology's jaw dropping capabilities are already deployed across America.

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The Memphis, TN, police have implemented the SkyCop, the Mobile License Plate Recognition & Video Surveillance System (MLPRV). The police champion it as “a platform to provide mobile, on the fly, license plate reading, video surveillance and analysis.” The police proclaim the system “incorporates all of today’s advanced technologies to provide on board storage, and remote access for database updates, data offload, and video records retrieval.” 

The squad car cop now has access to vehicle registration info as well as information about people driving with outstanding warrants, in stolen vehicles, with revoked licenses, stolen plates and stolen renewal licenses. Officers have access to information about “sex offenders” and “known gangsters,” neither of which have outstanding warrants. The Memphis police proclaim, “All of this information is provided instantly to the officer while they operate their vehicle, without any user action.”

License plate tracking is also playing out in suburbia. In the comfortable New Jersey community of Maplewood, the local police are implementing a LPR system costing $29,498.51. The local police captain, John Perna, noted that “the cameras are able to read license plates passing the car or behind the car.” He also pointed out that the system scans license-plate numbers through a NCIC database, thus instantaneously comparing plate numbers to any vehicle plate number that has been flagged as “wanted” for a crime throughout the country. 

According to the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), U.S. courts do not recognize privacy rights with regard to a license plate. However, a series of court rulings have begun to spotlight violation of GPS tracking in cars. In the recent  U.S. v. Jones, the Supreme Court was unanimous in throwing out a defendant’s conviction for drug trafficking when evidence to convict him was obtained through a GPS tracking device on his car, a violation of Fourth Amendment privacy protections.

EPIC identifies a series of recent federal judicial rulings challenging the warrantless use of GPS tracking. Rulings in Delaware, Massachusetts, Virginia and New York suggest how challenges to unlimited tracking, including LPR monitoring, are gaining ground. A federal judge of the Eastern District of New York noted, "The fiction that the vast majority of the American population consents to warrantless government access to the records of a significant share of their movements by 'choosing' to carry a cell phone must be rejected…” And he added: “In light of drastic developments in technology, the Fourth Amendment doctrine must evolve to preserve cell-phone user's reasonable expectation of privacy in cumulative cell-site-location records."

While warrantless tracking is a troubling issue, a second factor is often overlooked – how long can law enforcement agencies keep the LPR and other information collected? There seems to be no established regulations as to this issue, with local and state police employing vastly different standards. For example, the Tiburon police retain data for 30 days  But the state police in California and Washington hold information for up to 60 days; in Maryland and Tennessee it's one year. However, the New York State Police has no limit for LPR data retention.

License plate tracking is just one example of the growing phenomenon of personal monitoring involving both commercial entities and government agencies. In addition to police and other government entities, tracking is omnipresent in our digitally networked life.

The nation’s leading wireless service providers are collecting and selling customer data to insurance companies. Companies run by "repo men" are collecting LPR data to go after car repossessions and other failures to pay efforts. 

David Rosen is regular contributor to AlterNet, Brooklyn Rail, Filmmaker and IndieWire. His website is He can be reached at


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