Patterico's Pontifications


Can the Government Spy on Your License Plate? And . . . Can You Turn the Tables?

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 7:55 am

At first I wasn’t going to write about the Wall Street Journal story titled U.S. Spies on Millions of Drivers. (It “raises new questions about privacy and the scope of government surveillance”!! Call the Pulitzer committee!!!!) But then I saw another story that provided an ironic little twist that makes this a fun topic.

The Justice Department has been building a national database to track in real time the movement of vehicles around the U.S., a secret domestic intelligence-gathering program that scans and stores hundreds of millions of records about motorists, according to current and former officials and government documents.

I realize it’s more satisfying to be an extremist, always taking a position on the same side, whether it be civil liberties or security. But this really is one of those “on the one hand, on the other hand” type of situations. (Which is why I was lukewarm on writing the post at first. But just wait!)

On the one hand, the central government (I’m going to try to stop using the word “federal” because it’s not really federal) is growing in all sorts of ways that the Founding Fathers never envisioned. It’s hard not to see the truth in the statement of the ACLU spokesguy in the WSJ story when he says: “Any database that collects detailed location information about Americans not suspected of crimes raises very serious privacy questions.” I don’t trust Barack Obama or many of the political hacks working for him not to misuse such information.

On the other hand, the information is collected through plate readers. I know from personal experience that plate readers perform valuable functions. I have used them in a murder trial, to challenge the defendant’s claim that he had sold the car used in the murder before the murder occurred. (Oh yeah? Then why was it seen parked outside your home more than once in the weeks and months after the murder? Oh.) And just this past weekend I spoke to a man whose car was stolen, and was located within 3 days by a plate reader.

I’m not going to go as authoritarian as Jazz Shaw at Hot Air, whose argument is that you abandon all privacy the second you walk out the door. For one thing, Shaw’s premises are not all sound. (Shaw says: “Your movements out of doors are already tracked by numerous security cameras, ATMs and stop light monitors. That information is useful in numerous situations where police are trying to apprehend criminals, though it is somewhat different when the cameras belong to private businesses and citizens. In those cases the government must (and should) obtain a warrant to get hold of the footage.” No. Police almost always get that information through the consent of the camera owner.) Moreover, the “going out in public utterly eliminates your expectation of privacy” argument failed to carry the day in the Supreme Court decision about devices tracking cars (although, to be fair, the argument wasn’t really addressed because the Court said there was an invasion of private property in placing the device on the car).

Shaw also says that this is “precisely what we need given the current climate in the nation.” Well, on the one hand, the “current climate” is always what the government uses to justify further privacy intrusions. But, on the other hand (here goes Patterico again) police need to collect information to protect the public and solve crimes. We already trust the government with a lot of sensitive information (the government knows your license plate number, and look at everything you give to the IRS!) so this hardly seems like a super-scary step.

But here’s another story that puts it all in perspective, at the L.A. Times: Google to police: Waze app can’t ‘track’ officers’ movements:

Real-time traffic app Waze’s police spotting feature is a deterrent for dangerous driving, not a tool that can “track” police officers, Google officials said in response to concerns from the Los Angeles police chief.

In a Dec. 30 letter to Google, which acquired Waze in 2013, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck wrote that by pointing out police locations, the app compromises officer safety, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Times.

. . . .

The police-spotting feature allows users to drop an icon on a map indicating the rough location an officer was spotted, but it cannot “track” them or give an exact location, she said.

I realize that LAPD is not the central government, and I also think that Beck’s concerns are not entirely misplaced given the recent attacks on officers.

And yet, there is a certain irony here, is there not? In one story, the authorities are saying that law enforcement can use technology to compile information on citizens based on public observations — and in another story, the authorities are trying to prevent citizens from using technology to compile information on law enforcement based on public observations.

I could have made this post a lot punchier by simply noting that irony and foregoing all the nuance, I guess. (Apparently I suck at blogging.)

But I think the juxtaposition shows the true way out for civil libertarians. You’re probably not going to prevent the government from using technology to spy on you. But they’re probably going to have a hard time keeping you from doing the same thing to them.

That is, unless you give them control of the Internet through something like “Net Neutrality.” (We need Net Neutrality “given the current climate in the nation” of out-of-control ISPs! Trust us!!) Then government will able to do anything it wants.

The FCC’s Net Neutrality vote happens next month.

44 Responses to “Can the Government Spy on Your License Plate? And . . . Can You Turn the Tables?”

  1. tl;dr

    That’s why I put the important part in bold.

    Patterico (9c670f)

  2. I would not say you “suck at blogging” but you are no Dana

    anyway, license plate reading is also done on roadways in place of toll booths in many areas.
    I don’t recall any complaints from the ACLU about that.

    When Gogle does its StreetViews, does it need permission/waivers from anyone whose car is caught on screen? On the other hand, plates are always obscured by TV shows.

    I think a way around the issue could be strict application of the law. Any vehichle going even just .01 miles above the speed limit gets its license plate read.

    seeRpea (1d44c7)

  3. In other news: meteorologists can not accurately predict snowfall for the next 12 hours ( but they can use their computer models to predict the climate over the next hundred years.

    And in another shocking development, the Federal Fone Full of Fraud (

    seeRpea (1d44c7)

  4. Chief Beck is a gun hating fascist.

    redc1c4 (b340a6)

  5. I’m more inclined to juxtapose the fascist database story with this article Mr. Drudge highlighted this week

    happyfeet (a037ad)

  6. Maybe the climate people should start using Waze to find where their snow is

    steveg (794291)

  7. Before there was internet, there were CB radios: “Breaker, breaker, this is Abel Wood, Smokey in a plain brown wrapper* just past Exit 34 going North.”

    Chicago uses license plate readers in place of eyeballing. The camera on the police or meter maid vehicle reads the license plate in its field of views, the computers checks it and an alarm sounds for anything out order. Ditto for the roads in and out out of the airports. Every license plate gets read, recorded and cross-checked. What can you do? It’s the 21st century.

    *unmarked State police

    nk (dbc370)

  8. What can you do? It’s the 21st century.

    one idea would be to shoot out the plate readers using your trusty firearm

    happyfeet (a037ad)

  9. I am resigned to being tracked in everything soon.
    For example I have always paid cash because I grew up cashing my paycheck and paying the bills.
    I see they want to do away with cash and use cards and chips… the taxation wings of government will sit in there and monitor. I don’t recall if the IRS needs a warrant or not.

    Although I am concerned for officers and their safety, they had better get used to being watched by drones, filmed with iphones, audio recorded, and tracked via apps that let you upload a time date gps stamped photo that automatically goes on the map with their location.

    I think Glenn Reynolds over at Instapundit is a proponent of asserting ones right to film the police…

    steveg (794291)

  10. hmm, ya know the readers can do just that – read plates.
    no database hookups or relationships.
    then in order to match the plates to an entity they would need a warrant.

    legal problem solved?

    also , true story: a company that does the billing for tolles roads had to send out an appology letter to hundreds of state residents due to incorrect charges. The plate readers worked fine as they got information off the plate. But when the company sent out the notices they forgot to check which State was on the plate :)

    seeRpea (1d44c7)

  11. My new personal license plate: FBIGBRO

    Colonel Haiku (2601c0)

  12. FBI G BRO? Sucking up?

    bobathome (f208b6)

  13. A spokesman for Justice Department, which includes the DEA, said the program complies with federal law.

    Um, what about Constitutional Law?? Where’s the warrant or probable suspicion to spy and surviel innocent Americans?

    Seriously if you’re innocent and there’s no cause to be under surveillance, then you ought not be under surveillance, and this is a form of surveillance!

    But of course the government spying on American citizens without a warrant is common, and the DEA even tells LEA/LEO’s that the information being provided to them is without suspicion or a warrant and that the LEO’s must perjure themselves to keep this hidden:

    But of course the government spying on American citizens without a warrant is common, and the DEA even tells LEA/LEO’s that the information being provided to them is without suspicion or a warrant and that the LEO’s must perjure themselves to keep this hidden:

    With documents obtained via a public records request, Bloomington police operate twelve license plate readers at Mall of America. In the past 90 days, more than 2,275,000 cars have been scanned. Of those, more than 12,000 were “hits,” meaning the license plate is tied to someone suspected of committing a crime.
    0.52% are under suspicion of being involved in a crime….

    Bloomington Police Chief Jeff Potts. “We’ve recovered five stolen cars going to the Mall of America. That’s a good thing.”
    0.00022% recovered stolen vehicles. Well except that it cost $millions of dollars and millions of surveillance hours of innocent people to identify and recover just 5 stolen cars.

    Given that license plate readers facilitate the mass collection of information on Americans’ movements, that too many jurisdictions are retaining data on innocent Americans for long periods of time, and the inevitable trend towards greater sharing of this data, it is apparent that there are too few rules in place to ensure that license plate reader technology is not abused. – See more at:

    damion cocchi (45b569)

  14. And then we have Vigilant Systems, which has over 2.5Billion license records, location, and date and time reports; and adding over 70million each month.

    And in a recent announcement, Vigilant revealed its plans to combine license-plate data with facial recognition in a law enforcement product named Mobile Companion. This new product runs counter to law enforcement’s assertion that license plates are not personally identifying information. – See more at:

    Documents obtained by The Center for Investigative Reporting show that a leading maker of license-plate readers wants to merge the vehicle identification technology with other sources of identifying information, alarming privacy advocates. Vigilant Solutions is pushing a system that eventually could help fuse public records, license plates and facial recognition databases for police in the field.

    Vigilant also is the market leader in license-plate data collection. The company runs the Law Enforcement Archive and Reporting Network database, which stores more than 2.5 billion records and adds roughly 70 million new license-plate scans monthly. The company offers law enforcement free access to its license-plate data through another database, the National Vehicle Location Service.

    A Vigilant PowerPoint presentation about its products, obtained by CIR, contains a section on the “near future” for the company. That includes a fusion of public records, license-plate data and facial recognition, according to the slide. Another technology, dubbed MOAB, would help law enforcement find vehicles using a “probabilistic assessment” of a vehicle’s location based on historical data and public records.

    damion cocchi (45b569)



    Are Bloomington police checking just the MN plates or all plates?

    just the name ‘Vigilant Solutions‘ gives me the creeps. But hey,

    What price security?

    seeRpea (1d44c7)

  16. I can’t find a link, folks, but I seem to remember someone in Arizona who spraypaints over the license plate cameras. Or am I misremembering?

    Simon Jester (c8876d)

  17. But I think the juxtaposition shows the true way out for civil libertarians. You’re probably not going to prevent the government from using technology to spy on you. But they’re probably going to have a hard time keeping you from doing the same thing to them.

    This is essentially David Brin’s thesis in his book The Transparent Society. 1998, but he not only talks about the impact of ubiquitous video but also data mining on individual citizens, groups, and the government.

    David-2 (4d2680)

  18. Los Angeles tried to start a spray paint purchaser database a few years ago

    happyfeet (a037ad)

  19. The Fourth Amendment protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” It’s never been limited to the home, and the words “effects” and (these digital days) “papers” anticipate interpretative application by magistrates and courts. Certainly expectations of privacy are most justifiable and reasonable at one’s home. But they can, and sometimes do, extend to less permanently private spaces, like one’s car interior and trunk, or like one’s hotel room. In the case of the hotel room, one’s expectations are subject to the fact that even during one’s occupancy, one expects others, such as the hotel’s staff, to have access; and the likelihood that hotels often volunteer access, when requested, to law enforcement officials. In the case of the car, one’s privacy is subject to intrusion associated with enforcement of traffic laws & regulations.

    Certainly the lawyers among the Founding Fathers fully understood that by picking the word “unreasonable” to qualify and limit governmental “searches and seizures,” they were adopting a flexible and situation-specific rule whose application would necessarily end up being tested, again and again, in court. But you don’t see the word “reasonable,” for example, as a qualifier in the Second Amendment: They knew what they were doing, and they anticipated that for as long as the Constitution stands, we’ll still be arguing about whether particular searches, seizures, arrests, and resulting convictions do or don’t violate the Fourth Amendment.

    Here we have a situation in which regulations and laws created to govern vehicular traffic — and specifically the rule that vehicles have, and visibly display, valid license plates attesting the vehicle’s compliance with those laws — are resulting in law enforcement observations of more or less the sort that can be reasonably contemplated by anyone and everyone as the natural consequence of license plate laws. The State requires you to display the plates; and now we’re complaining that the State takes close notice when we do?

    In general, big picture and as a matter of constitutional principle, I don’t see a Fourth Amendment problem with the database that gathers and compares plate information and location, using only such observation as may be done from and in public places (or from and in nonpublic places with consent of their owners).

    But I do see room for state governments, through their non-constitutional democratic institutions (primarily the legislature, subject to the executive’s signature/veto and the judiciary’s enforcement of constitutional limitations), to decide, as a policy matter, that we don’t actually want the license-tracking regime to become as ruthlessly efficient and comprehensive as cheap and available technology now permits. The legislature is the proper place to debate and set the fine adjustments to statutory privacy protections (beyond those commanded by the Fourth Amendment and, in some contexts, other parts of the Constitution). So if you don’t like the idea that your plate locations are capable of being tracked, noted, and then extracted from a government database, write your state politicians to propose changes as a policy matter.

    As for keeping tabs on, and correlating and reporting information about, where traffic cops and other law enforcement units are at any given time: When the public is simply observing and trading information about what’s in public view, I have a pretty hard time imagining how restricting legislation or regulation could withstand First Amendment analysis (since rights to speech, assembly, and petitioning of government are involved).

    On the other hand, I’m pretty sure most local police departments are familiar with the concept of “unmarked cars” and “undercover officers.” And those certainly do pass constitutional muster as law enforcement tools.

    Beldar (fa637a)

  20. I’ve been thinking about putting a video camera in my own car. I see it as a way to level the playing field. Between stories from friends and loved ones about receiving meritless traffic tickets and others fighting legal battles with reckless drivers who claim the other guy was at fault, a little video documentation of my own actions seems prudent. I’m not quite at the point where I want to invest in Google Glass, but I can sure see their usefulness.

    I appreciate steveg’s bringing up the currency issue. My view is that although some governments may try to eliminate circulating currency and replace it with a system of electronic payments, it will never succeed. All it will do is accelerate the ongoing substitution of less efficient near-monies, such as gold, silver and Bitcoin, or promote the use of foreign currencies for domestic transactions. I actually see benefit in this outcome, as it will erode governments’ monopoly powers.

    ThOR (a52560)

  21. No, Bob, throwing down!

    Colonel Haiku (2601c0)

  22. Or how ’bout “NOTISIS”

    Colonel Haiku (2601c0)

  23. Or “FDPOPOS”

    Colonel Haiku (2601c0)

  24. I think I know what Sam Adams answer would be.

    No I probably don’t, but that seemed like some good historical manly stuff to say right there.

    Attacking the oil fields where ever they may be found. A few snow flakes in mid winter treated as excuse to shut down all travel in NYC and BOS (seems so Orwellian weird. Even here in California you have to have avalanches to such down traffic)

    It’s as if Barry resents us our moving around. Wants us in little boxes without any leg or elbow room, like we voted down for chickens a while back.

    papertiger (c2d6da)

  25. The MN police scan all plates not just MN, and then were the camera’s have had issues of vandalism (aka destruction) they now deploy camera’s to watch the Red-Light and Speed-Camera’s:

    damion cocchi (45b569)

  26. hf

    there isn’t enough ammunition

    Maybe pop some magenta smoke and make a fabulous entrance

    steveg (794291)

  27. “It’s as if Barry resents us our moving around. Wants us in little boxes without any leg or elbow room, like we voted down for chickens a while back.”

    Just say “yes!!!” to manspreading and “Hell No!” to plate scanning miles driven taxation

    Colonel Haiku (2601c0)

  28. I liked this:

    “In 2012, the justices said the police, generally, may not place GPS trackers on vehicles to follow their every move without warrants.

    The government argued that a GPS tracker was constitutional because motorists have no expectation of privacy while in public.”

    steveg (794291)

  29. EzPass is just as bad, PukingMonkey hacked an EzPass to alert whenever driving pass an EzPass sensor (and not at toll locations)…

    How to hack an EzPass to identify when EzPass is monitoring you (use the faraday bag when not going through the tolls)

    two DIY methods, cameras are sensitive to IR, so to beat camera’s and yet still allow full visibility to the naked eye.

    Or these guys, who made it better… Recognizes the camera flash and sets off another flash to seriously over-expose the pic: NoPhoto (uses Xenon light) – but not effective with mobile ALPR’s like those on police cars.
    Test Trial:

    damion cocchi (45b569)

  30. The more criminals they release and allow to roam freely the more surveillance is required for the the rest of us.

    crazy (cde091)

  31. Spy on Me, Spy on Thee!

    askeptic (efcf22)

  32. smoke yes yes like James Bond smoke

    day is comin we all be rollin coal

    for freedom!

    happyfeet (a037ad)

  33. Note that Scalia isn’t a big fan of the “Expectation of Privacy” thing, as he thinks some aspects of the 4th amendment extend to places where there is no such expectation (e.g. driveways and porches, as in the GPS and external sensor cases).

    Kevin M (56aae1)

  34. This is a great post and anyone who says you suck at blogging (even if it’s you!) is crazy.

    DRJ (a83b8b)

  35. Privacy? Aren’t people’s locations and interests for the most part already tracked pretty much all the time, at home and hither thither and yon, by virtue of their smart phone innards?

    elissa (d37ab6)

  36. Recent court decisions have denied cops downloading from your phone without a warrant?

    steveg (794291)

  37. People forget that 30-40 years ago drivers were reporting sightings of police cars via CB radios.

    Dave (47b39f)

  38. so what is FBIGBRO supposed to be? “FBI Go Bother Red Obama” ?
    “Fine Big Intelligent Govt Bureau Responsible Organization” ?

    seeRpea (1d44c7)

  39. FBI

    nk (dbc370)

  40. The Transparent Society
    by David Brin

    now 20 years old…

    IGotBupkis, "Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses." (225d0d)

  41. they now deploy camera’s to watch the Red-Light and Speed-Camera’s

    This is 12 years old, but probably just as relevant now as it was then, with regards to cameras
    Inside the District’s Red Lights

    Note: Long, but very well researched and well worth the read

    P.S., it’s freakin’ Minnesota. “Yeah, officers, be on the lookout for a guy in a hoodie and a ski mask… No, we aren’t sure what race he is. Or hair color. We THINK it’s a guy, at least…”

    IGotBupkis, "Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses." (225d0d)

  42. Patterico, presuming you still read your blog and since I can’t find another place here to ask this:
    Was the imposition of Martial Law in NYC and NY State for the fake blizzard legal?

    (btw: on Monday saw lots of people claiming the snow storm was due to AGW. yet when no big storm hit the DC-NYC corridor, none of them came forward and said ‘umm, maybe I need to rethink this’)

    seeRpea (1d44c7)

  43. The baby got 20 inches in Nassau County, Long Island, and he said 30 inches had fallen east of him. The storm was big; it simply didn’t get as far west as people thought it would.

    nk (dbc370)

  44. it simply didn’t get as far west as people thought it would

    that was the whole point of the publicity, that the snow would hit mainland and that it was due to AGW that it would hit mainland. 30″ eastern end of Long Island is not huge historic deal. it is not even historic. east LI is in the Atlantic.

    seeRpea (1d44c7)

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