The Danger of License Plate Readers in Post-Roe America

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Since the United Supreme Court of the States knocked over Rowe vs. Wade last month, large-scale surveillance in America may soon be turned against those who seek abortions or provide abortion services.

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Currently, nine states almost completely banned abortion, and other countries are expected to follow suit. Many Republican legislators in these states discussion the ability to prevent people from crossing state lines to have an abortion. If such plans are accepted and pass legal scrutiny, one of the key technologies that could be deployed to track people trying to cross state lines would be automatic license plate readers (ALPR). They are widely used by the US police, but are also used by private individuals.

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ALPRs are cameras that are installed on street poles, overpasses and other places that can identify and capture the license plates of passing vehicles for the purpose of issuing speeding tickets and tolls, detecting stolen vehicles, etc. State and local police are databases of captured license plates and often uses them. Database in criminal investigations.

The police have access not only to license plate data collected by their own ALPRs, but also to data collected by private companies. Firms such as Flock Safety and Motorola Solutions have their own ALPR networks that are installed on the vehicles of private companies and organizations they work with, such as car repossession services. Flock, for example claims it collects license plate data from approximately 1500 cities and can collect data from over billion cars every month.

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“They have fleets of vehicles with ALPR that are just collecting data. They sell this to various clients, including repo firms and government agencies. They also sell them to police departments,” says Jay Stanley, ACLU senior policy analyst. “This is a giant nationwide mass surveillance system. This will obviously have serious repercussions if interstate travel becomes part of forced births.”

Neither Flock Safety nor Motorola Solutions responded to requests for comment prior to posting.

Stanley says ALPRs are more concentrated in metropolitan areas, but they are also common in rural areas. If someone travels out of state to have an abortion, the police are likely to be able to repeatedly determine where their license plates were scanned during the trip and when they were scanned. With this information, they can map out the person’s travel patterns. The police don’t need a warrant to get this information because the license plates are out in the open and can be seen by anyone, which is not necessarily the case when the police want to get someone’s location from their phone or use another method of tracking.

“The denser the ALPR scanners are, the more they look like GPS tracking,” says Stanley.

Once the person seeking an abortion has left the state, the police department can look up license plate data in the other state through private databases, or they can get that data through the police department in that state. Police departments across the country regularly Share ALPR data with each other, and the data is often transferred without much supervision.

“The huge problem is that people are sharing data without thinking about who they are sharing it with or why,” says Dave Maass, Senior Fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

Maass notes that the police are not the only ones who can use ALPR data to track people seeking abortions. He says that thanks to Texas Senate Bill 8 (SB 8), anti-abortion groups can use license plate data in legal cases. against whole masses of people. This law allows anyone in the U.S. to sue abortion providers, anyone who “helps or abets” someone who wants an abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected (usually about six weeks), or anyone who intends to help whom -something to have an illegal abortion in the state. . It is also known that anti-abortion groups write down car numbers of people in abortion clinics over the years, notes Maass, so they may even have a database of car numbers already available to them that they can search against.

“I’m worried about one big private database run by DRN Data. It’s not necessarily law enforcement, but individuals who may be trying to enforce abortion laws through things like Texas SB 8,” says Maass.

DRN data manages a license plate reader database that receives data from repo trucks and other ALPR-equipped vehicles. (DNR data has not yet responded to WIRED’s request for comment.) Regardless of who uses them, there is no shortage of license plate scanners, and Maass and Stanley say it will be extremely difficult for a person who wants an abortion to avoid being tracked on the road. path.

“You can use Uber, but that will create a different data trail. You can rent a car, but that’s a different data trail. You can go by bus, but that’s a different data route,” says Maass.

One policy change that could help solve this problem, Stanley said, is for states to pass the same legislation as New Hampshire. Its charter states that ALPR data “should not be recorded or transmitted anywhere and must be deleted from the system within three minutes of being captured, unless the number resulted in an arrest, citation or protective custody or identified the vehicle that was the subject of the loss.” or a wanted person on the radio.” This type of law will prevent police departments from storing data that can be used for a long time.

Like abortion laws, ALPR rules vary from state to state. New Hampshire doesn’t keep this data for long, but Arkansas, which last month almost all abortion services have been criminalized– allows you to save data for 150 days. In other states, license plate records may be limited to 21 to 90 days. Georgia, whose pending law bans abortions after fetal heart activity is detected, allows police to keep license plate data for 30 months after it is collected. Maass says these issues will have to be addressed across the country.

“Legislators should pay attention to this. Law enforcement needs to talk to city council members about how they are going to deal with this problem,” says Maass. “Attorneys general who say they are going to protect access to abortion need to check their data systems. A lot of this will have to be decided in a political context.”

ALPR is just one of many surveillance tools that will be available to police departments and anti-abortion groups, but it will be one of the most powerful tools available if states succeed in making it illegal to cross state lines to obtain an abortion. States seeking to protect access to abortion services have little time to assess how the technology is being used and whether policies need to be changed to limit its use.

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