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When is License Plate Recognition Illegal?

  • Written by Ron Brown

mug brownIn the last issue we looked at the history and development of license plate recognition (LPR), currently considered by many as a cutting-edge tool for cyber-tracking. We looked at how it originated and the companies who pioneered it in the United States. We saw how the original design application was intended for use by law enforcement but quickly spread and migrated to the asset recovery industry and finally, how this form of cyber tracking has changed the modus operandi of the automobile repossession industry.

With this new technology there are issues and concerns with the primary issue being that of privacy.

What License Plate Recognition Isn’t

Many people, upon learning of this new technique of electronic surveillance began to develop the “big brother is watching syndrome” while others felt as if they were being stalked and their movements tracked. Many felt that the use of LPR was an invasion of their privacy.

If we address these issues, we can discount stalking as per definition a person is not being followed, given chase, run after or placed under a surveillance. LPR does not meet the test.

If we look at the issue of tracking, I would have to say maybe. LPR captures point-in-time data on a vehicle. If a vehicle is spotted at different locations at varying times of day or night and a pattern is established then I would definitely feel the person, or at least the vehicle, had been tracked.

Finally, is the use of LPR an invasion of a person’s privacy? It has been stated by a major LPR entity that, “LPR doesn’t know who you are; it is anonymous data. A string of numbers and letters with a date, time, and location – That is all.”

Anonymous Identification?

Why is the LPR data considered anonymous data and is your privacy protected from this realtime technology?

Because of the protections put in place by the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, the inability to connect license plate numbers to protected personal information held at DMVs without an expressed permissible purpose means that license plate numbers (whether obtained by writing them down or by taking pictures manually or automatically with automatic license plate reader/recognition cameras) are anonymous data.

Predicting a Consumer’s Activity

Is LPR data being used to record Americans’ movements and thus trace a person’s past movements?

LPR can be used to see where you work, where you live, what social functions you might attend, where you go to church, when and where you go to eat and drink and where you shop. This data can be used to determine your habits and patterns and therefore be predictive.

Two things the tracer should note. First, LPR technology does not know who is driving or who is in a vehicle. Second, LPR does not continuously trace all movements. LPR is not a continuous surveillance tool like GPS technology. LPR technology only takes snapshots of a license plate (and the attached car) and notes the location, time, and date if a plate happens to be within view of a camera.

This is very different from GPS tracking technology, which is capable of tracing a vehicle’s movements over time with high precision and involves physical trespass upon private property (a vehicle) in order to place a tracker. Because of these unique features of GPS technology, in 2012 the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Jones determined that GPS tracking constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment and should be subject to a warrant requirement.

LPR technology is a fascinating and helpful tool for the professional tracer if used in a legal manner. Next issue we will address whether or not LPR technology can be defeated, sending the tracer on a false trail?


Ron Brown is a member of the National Association of Fraud Investigators and the author of “MANHUNT: The Book.” Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..