Private manufactures enthuse that it’s like having an extra police officer in every patrol car while saving on personnel costs. Opponents of excessive government intrusion warn it will allow law enforcement to spy on innocent people by tracking their whereabouts.

Automatic license-plate readers enable police to rapidly verify that passing motorists aren’t behind the wheel of a stolen vehicle or don’t have outstanding warrants. Motorola Inc. unveiled a major public safety initiative last month in which company officials envisioned four separate license-plate readers aiming in different directions someday being affixed to the outside of all squad cars. The company for several years now has capitalized on large, post-Sept. 11 investments made by government agencies in new emergency communications systems and other enhanced security equipment.

While plate readers are less visible than public video cameras in the debate over probing surveillance technology, they’re perhaps even more powerfully tempting to law enforcement: Motorola claims the devices can read up to 5,000 plates during an eight-hour shift. Software compares information sucked up by the readers to electronic lists of cars reported stolen and warrants that are outstanding.

Officers would otherwise have to manually check such information and cover just a fraction of the license plates they come into contact with while on the beat. Police in Long Beach, Calif., Motorola says, made 50 arrests, identified nearly 1,000 stolen or lost license plates and seized 275 stolen vehicles in just six months. The readers can also put a quick stop to motorists evading a pesky traffic ticket or four that they’ve allowed to languish without attention for months.

Police are required to do virtually nothing when plate readers are in operation. The system is automatic and notifies the officer when a suspect vehicle is identified among thousands being scanned, presenting him or her with an image of the car and its plate, plus details about why the driver deserves scrutiny.

Legally speaking, license-plate readers are not unlike what law enforcers do every day, confirming automobile registration and other information the government already retains electronically. In other words, on their surface the readers don’t seem to resemble a new Orwellian monster in which the most sensitive personal information about yourself is stockpiled in massive data systems.

A closer look, however, could set off alarm bells. The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state argued May 26 that plate readers store the time, date and GPS location of each passing car. Plenty of those cars don’t match any list of known code violators or stolen vehicles. Big-city police departments especially, civil libertarians say, are in a position to record tens of millions of driver details every year.

According to the ACLU:

[License-plate readers] raise serious privacy concerns because of the system’s ability to monitor and track the movements of all vehicles, including those registered to people who are not suspected of any crime. Without restrictions, law enforcement agencies can and do store the data gathered by the license-plate readers forever, allowing them to monitor where you have traveled and when you traveled there over an extended period of time. In fact, a key selling point for vendors is the system’s ability to track drivers.

Motorola’s own product literature indeed emphasizes these unique capabilities pointing out that the readers can “quietly note the time and location” when a “vehicle of interest” passes an officer. The collected information is then loaded into a program called Back Office System Software, or BOSS, a Motorola sales pitch says:

[Plate readers] can generate vast amounts of data: database hits, GPS coordinates, time of day, photographs, plate numbers and more. Back at headquarters, BOSS turns this data into useful intelligence. … Users can query the data using multiple search parameters including time, date, full or partial plate, location and user. BOSS can also map all locations related to a single plate to track vehicle movements. The BOSS web interface allows data to be easily shared across multiple locations and agencies.

Eighteen police departments in Washington state are relying on them, but the ACLU says that only two states nationally have established restrictions for how data collected from the readers can be used. While license-plate readers have been in operation for some time now, the ACLU attributes a surge in their popularity to improvements in the technology and the availability of federal grants to finance them, including funds from President Obama’s Recovery Act.

As seen here, Recovery Act spending figures show that agencies across the country are seeking license-plate readers with stimulus cash

An almost giddy Charlie Beck, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, told Government Technology in 2008 that the difference is like fishing with a net instead of a line. Safeguards can be put in place that protect the privacy rights of citizens, he said, but plate readers aren’t going anywhere. And Beck, too, puts a premium on the fact that they can document automobile locations. “The real value comes from the long-term investigative uses of being able to track vehicles – where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing – and tie that to crimes that have occurred or that will occur … The hope is to take all the readings and put them into one database for when you’ve got another jurisdiction or state looking for a car that may have shown up here.”

Now might be a good time to catch up on parking tickets before a license-plate reader identifies you and all your neighbors as good candidates for the boot.

Flickr photo of New Hampshire license plate by Amy the Nurse

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED,, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.