The Cold Stare of Justice: How Automatic License Plate Readers Chill Activity

By: Stephen Elkind


When we are observed, we modify our behavior. Indeed, “merely hanging up posters of staring human eyes is enough to significantly change people’s behavior.” When you are observed, you act differently than when you are alone. You are more likely, when shopping for example, to purchase the more expensive brand if there are other customers in the store. But what happens when you are observed indirectly? What happens when you are observed by your government? And what happens when that observation tracks your location over an arbitrary time period and is never deleted?!?


Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR) systems are cameras mounted on stationary objects or moving cars. The cameras are programmed to take photos of every license plate encountered, capturing the location and time data of thousands of cars per minute. Aggregated, the information collected by ALPR systems paints a clear picture of your daily conduct, and “can be used as a kind of mass, warrantless tracking system.” These systems are becoming cheaper and therefore more popular among law enforcement agencies. What’s worse is that limiting the retention time of the data seems to be the exception rather than the norm, meaning your local police will remember your trip to the store for years to come.


But people don’t just go to the grocery store and back. They stop at a bar (a gay bar?) they go to a place of worship, they visit with friends, lovers, family, and much more. In United States v. Jones, a case that went up before the Supreme Court in 2011, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed an amicus brief. They argue, “[A]necdotal evidence demonstrates that surveillance of mosque attendance has significantly chilled Muslims’ willingness to congregate at their houses of worship” after 9/11.  Police cars, equipped with ALPR systems, driving through mosque parking lots is an increase in surveillance that would lead directly to a decrease in mosque attendance and even Muslim charitable donations. Simply put, ALPR surveillance chills associational activity, “particularly for those who are members of, or associate with members of, religious and political minority groups.


If associational activity is valuable, which it most certainly is, and police insist on using ALPRs, which they most certainly do, then a balance must be struck. Police cars with high-powered cameras constantly capturing the comings and goings of each and every vehicle must adopt strict retention time limitations or somehow ensure that the harms articulated by CAIR aren’t further perpetrated. Otherwise, the icy gaze of big brother will continue to freeze important associational activity of law abiding citizens.