On March 26, the Idaho Falls Police Department was notified that a car driving on Interstate 15 had been flagged by an automatic license plate reader. The vehicle was suspected in Minnesota of being involved with drug smuggling.
The car’s driver did not properly signal before switching lanes and was traveling slightly above the speed limit, enough to allow an officer to make a traffic stop. A K-9 officer was called in, and police found 42 pounds of marijuana in the car. Sam Said Shoua Lao and Destiny Vang, both of Minnesota, were charged for drug possession.
Automated license plate readers can allow law enforcement to locate vehicles suspected to be involved in a variety of crimes, including grand theft auto, kidnapping and drug trafficking.
But the technology has had its share of controversy. Privacy rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, say the readers are a form of mass surveillance.
“Automatic license plate readers have the potential to create permanent records of virtually everywhere any of us has driven, radically transforming the consequences of leaving home to pursue private life, and opening up many opportunities for abuse,” the ACLU said in a statement on its website. “The tracking of people’s location constitutes a significant invasion of privacy, which can reveal many things about their lives, such as what friends, doctors, protests, political events, or churches a person may visit.”
Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office Spokesman Sgt. Bryan Lovell dismissed concerns that law enforcement would use the devices to encroach on privacy. He said the devices are used only to track license plates of vehicles that have been flagged by law enforcement as suspected of a crime.
There are two types of automated license plate readers; stationary ones and those mounted on vehicles, typically in front of a patrol vehicle’s emergency lights.
Most of the stationary automatic license plate readers in East Idaho were set up by the Madison County Sheriff’s Office, including the one that found Lao and Vang.
The readers track the license plates of passing vehicles, regardless of whether the vehicle has been flagged. If a license plate has been flagged, an alert is sent to the patrol officer with information about why the vehicle is flagged and where. If the license place reader is stationary, a notification is sent to Madison County Dispatch, which then forwards the information to the nearest county dispatch to alert their patrol officers.
According to Madison County Sheriff’s Office Cpl. Isaac Payne, however, local law enforcement cannot type in a license plate number to see if a car passed a license plate reader before it was flagged.
“The technology’s always evolving and some day it might be able to do more,” Payne said.
The license plate readers connect to the same national database used by law enforcement to search if someone has an active warrant.
Concerns about privacy relating to license plate readers center on whether plate numbers can be considered personal information. Recently, a judge in Fairfax County, Virginia, ruled local law enforcement could not have a database of pictures of license plates because it violated the state’s privacy laws.
The ACLU has argued the technology should only be used in an active investigation. Last month, the organization released a report that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have accessed databases used to store data from the license plate readers.
If a law enforcement agency wants to check camera footage from the license plate reader, it can request it from the agency that owns the license plate reader. Lovell said access to that footage is not freely available, and that access to the license plate reader’s database is limited to personnel with passwords to protect the privacy of drivers.
The devices are not exclusive to law enforcement. Multiple security companies advertised the devices as a tool for home or corporate security.
Concerns also have been raised about security for the devices. A January article by Tech Crunch cited examples of automatic license plate readers being accessible online because the device owners had not changed default passwords to the devices.
The automatic license plate reader used by Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office was developed by PIPS Technology Autoplate. According to Shodan, a search engine security tool used to find insecure devices on the internet, PIPS had 21 insecure license plate readers in the United States on April 3, but none in Idaho. The majority of the devices found by Shodan had been online for 10 days or less.
Use of the technology is limited in East Idaho. Idaho State Police Spokesman Tim Marsano said state police will use information from local law enforcement’s plate readers, but the agency does not have any of its own. Lovell said the sheriff’s office has only one license plate reader. The Idaho Falls Police Department has one, but Spokeswoman Jessica Clements said it’s not currently in use. The Madison County Sheriff’s Office has license plate readers attached to two patrol cars.
“It’s only shared for law enforcement purposes,” Lovell said. “No one’s got time to look back at everybody’s stuff unless you’re subject to an investigation.”