Explosive Growth of License Plate Cameras

Once only used by law enforcement, license plate cameras have become common in towns and neighborhoods across the U.S. - and with them privacy concerns.

Explosive Growth of License Plate Cameras

Automated license plate readers (ALPR) are license plate cameras that scan and record license plates. They’re mounted on police patrol cars, in neighborhood communities and on public streets to track vehicles. 

A license plate camera can scan up to 1,800 license plates per minute (even in the dark), creating potential privacy issues. What are the thousands of captured license plate numbers each ALPR records used for? 

NDI Recognition Systems explains that a wireless license plate camera is programmed to compare captured license plate numbers to a police database of wanted criminals. But the cameras have other uses: “ALPR is also used in the commercial industry for parking management, gated communities, and gas stations. It’s even being tested with the fast-food restaurant industry as a source of data intelligence for customer analysis,” according to NDI. 

What’s The Difference Between Security Cameras and License Plate Cameras?

A security camera records everything going on in its general field of focus. License plate readers are designed to scan for, focus and capture the alpha-numeric characters found on license plates.

Where Are Most ALPR Cameras Installed?

Wireless license plate cameras are generally used by law enforcement and are commonly installed on police cars. Other places you’ll find them is:

  • In digital speed display signs
  • Guarded entrances to buildings or gated communities
  • Highway overpasses
  • Parking garages
  • Street utility poles
  • Streetlights

ALPRs have grown in popularity thanks to free software that can turn an affordable IP camera into a wireless license plate camera. OpenALPR is one of the most popular software companies that can turn a standard surveillance camera into a license plate camera that, according to the website, “can monitor traffic across a four-lane highway with 99% accuracy.” 

Free software like OpenALPR means private businesses and citizens can now also conduct their own form of mass surveillance. But at what privacy cost?

HOA and property managers think license plate readers are a powerful tool to keep communities safe by catching criminals and vandals in the act. The cameras work 24/7 to see who comes and goes from the neighborhood, who is not mowing their lawn regularly or who is breaking other HOA rules.

Surveillance from a wireless license plate camera may be helpful in spotting offenders but some residents are concerned about where these cameras are pointing, who is accessing the footage and what’s being done with it.

Ethical Issues Behind ALPRs

ALPRs are an effective tool when used for law enforcement. But as license plate cameras become more readily available to the private sector, the lines of safety and privacy are blurred. 

According to Chris Jann, President and CEO of Medicus IT, “Technological advancements always come bearing strong benefits, potential abuses, and a tension between the two. This is the exact situation we face with ALPRs in the medical field,” he explains. “The tension here is between security and privacy. These cameras will no doubt increase security, but will inevitably compromise privacy to a certain degree.”

Here are some other ethical issues that widespread use of wireless license plate cameras present:

Privacy concerns and voyeurism

Anyone can be monitored at any time with a strategically placed camera. The NY Times reported how experts studying how the camera systems in Britain are operated found that some male operators use cameras to voyeuristically spy on women.

Shifting public safety responsibility

The ACLU finds that surveillance cameras have not been proven effective and shift public safety from police departments to property owners.

Potential mismanagement of captured data

TechCrunch found more than 150 ALPR devices were easily searchable online and the data could have been easily accessed because “the majority had a default password documented in its support guides.”

Targeting and victimizing civilians

Police officers have been caught abusing law enforcement databases by looking up phone numbers and addresses of women they find attractive.

ALPR State Laws

Private citizens don’t have internal affairs units or boards of ethics monitoring their use of ALPRs like law enforcement does. States have stepped in to legislate the use of license plate cameras. At least 16 states now have statutes related to ALPR use and data retention. 

The issue is that someone downloading the ALPR software may not know there are laws on how and what they can collect, making this new wave of surveillance tech full of pitfalls. Dave Maass of the Electronic Frontier Foundation says, “It’s possible not a lot of users realize this when trying out the software.” 


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