What is an Automated License Plate Reader in California?

what is an automated license plate reader

What is an Automated License Plate Reader in California?

Though few know it, the truth is law enforcement agencies acting on behalf of the state of California are using taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars to scan driver license plates. To the surprise of many, this scanning is being performed in an automatic manner. California law enforcement now use automated license plate readers, or ALPR for short, to take pictures of vehicle license plates and store images of those plates. Let’s take a closer look at the state’s use of this technology.

The Basics of ALPR Technology

As soon as an automobile passes within the camera view of ALPRs, the camera is activated. These diminutive cameras are positioned on top of fixed and moving objects throughout California jurisdictions. This means ALPRs are positioned on police patrol cars, light poles and other objects. The cameras take snapshots of each automobile that passes by. The images of these vehicles are subsequently converted into data that is entered into a database that is automatically searched.

Why California is Using ALPR Technology

ALPR ultimately makes it that much easier for law enforcers to pinpoint the locations of vehicles used for criminal purposes, the locations of stolen vehicles and the use of vehicles in child kidnappings and other illegal behavior. Consider a situation in which police in a California jurisdiction are alerted that an armed robbery has occurred. The suspects depart the scene of the crime in a vehicle yet a witness catches a glimpse of the first couple letters and numbers of that vehicle’s license plate. In turn, police consult the ALPR database and track all locations where ALPR locations are positioned to determine if the vehicle in question has passed through one of those areas. This search is performed in real-time, making it that much easier for police to identify the location of suspects.

In short, ALPR data is relied upon for use with what the legal community refers to as “hot lists” that list automobile license plates tied to crime investigations or linked to individuals of interest. However, it must be noted ALPRs do not take pictures of certain vehicle license plates while ignoring others. Every single automobile that passes by an ALPR is inputted into the system.

Why ALPR Technology is Concerning in the Context of Privacy

Thankfully, the vast majority of license plates entered into the system do not match with license plates on a hot list. However, it is a bit concerning that the information collected by ALPRs is stored. This means the state of California is capable of tracking the locations of vehicles based on the point in time when they pass by ALPR cameras that take pictures of license plates.
In short, ALPRs represent the start of a statewide surveillance system that is likely to expand all the more in the years and decades ahead. Some question as to whether the use of ALPR technology violates the privacy principles as detailed in section 1798.28 of the California Civil Code. In fact, an audit of this technology revealed ALPRS collected and stored data that in some situations included names, dates of birth and even driver addresses stored within the cloud administered by a third-party vendor. This vendor employed private individuals as opposed to employees of the state of California.

Add in the fact that agents of the state could use the information gleaned from ALPR technology to track the travel patterns of private citizens and the technology is even more concerning. It is quite possible this technology will be used to blackmail an individual if it has not already been used for such purposes.

However, few California drivers are aware of the fact that their movements are being monitored by the state through ALPR technology. Though this technological advancement is certainly useful in the context of law enforcement, there is an argument to be made that it is a civil rights violation similar to the violations of George Orwell’s Big Brother state and central governments in the prophetic novel titled 1984.