While I've been vaguely aware of license plate readers for years, I am probably like most Americans when I confess I had no idea quite how much they've proliferated or how large a data pool has been assembled that can find out where we've been and when.
As reported by CNN, the ACLU has made public records requests to nearly 600 local and state police departments in order to document the now common practice of recording license plate information and storing it for years, with little privacy protection offered.
While license plate readers certainly help alert authorities to a vehicle associated with an investigation, the data of millions of innocent drivers is also being collected and stored. Private companies are also using these readers.
While we drove to The Homestead last week (yes, no tears for us), we noted the readers on overpasses, bridges, state police cars and poles holding highway signs. There were a LOT of them.
Typically, the results of reader data gathered by authorities is run against hot lists, such as that of the National Crime Information Center, which then produces an alert in the event of a "hit," typically signifying that the vehicle may be stolen or was used in the commission of a crime.
Most people have no problem with this - it is the data of everyone else, stored indeterminately, that causes concern. As the ACLU says, "If not properly secured, license plate reader databases open the door to abusive tracking, enabling anyone with access to pry into the lives of his boss, his ex-wife, or his romantic, political, or workplace rivals."
As one law enforcement official said, "I hear everyone's discussion about the right to privacy. If I'm telling my wife I'm somewhere, I certainly don't need somebody saying they saw my car somewhere else." Probably an innocent comment, but it made me smile.