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The Government Is Tracking Your Cars’ Movements, Too

Lewis Kendall

It appears the government is recording our movements not just online, but also in our cars.  According to a new ACLU report, "You Are Being Tracked: How License Plate Readers Are Being Used To Track Americans' Movements," automatic cameras are capturing and storing data on millions of innocent motorists including license plate numbers, locations, dates and times of movements, with "few or no restrictions to protect privacy rights." The information is commonly being shared between law enforcement agencies and in some cases is being pooled into larger regional databases, the report notes. In a recent case regarding GPS data, the Federal Appeals Court in D.C. explained the dangers that gathering such data poses to personal privacy: "A person who knows all of another's travels can deduce whether he is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups—and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts." While the cameras are designed to aid police in catching suspected criminals, the report finds that the practice is ineffective at best. Over a five month period in Maryland, the report notes, the systems collected 29 million "reads" on license plates, of which a mere 47 were considered "hits" associated with serious crimes such as a stolen vehicle or wanted person.  And who is footing the bill for this massive data collection? According to the Wall Street Journal, over the past five years the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has issued $50 million in federal grants to local law enforcement agencies to pay for the programs.  Only five states have laws governing the use of such readers, the report notes. And there is currently little to no oversight of the private companies that deploy the cameras to gather similar data in parking decks, shopping malls and gated communities. "The implementation of automatic license plate readers poses serious privacy and other civil liberties threats. The knowledge that one is subject to constant monitoring can chill the exercise of our cherished rights to free speech and assocation," the report concludes. 

Lewis Kendall is a Summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times.
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