If you drive in the United States or Canada, state, provincial, and local enforcement agencies are tracking your movements whether you break the law or not. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has discovered that law enforcement agencies are using automated scanners to take pictures of every license plate on every vehicle that passes a certain point.
Some of these scanners are mounted on police cars, but others could be mounted on traffic signals, buildings, tollbooths signs, and posts along the roads. There could also be scanners connected to surveillance cameras and those automated systems that monitor your speed and send you tickets.
Worst of all, the ACLU believes that law enforcement can track your location through these systems. This can enable cops to get around a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that bars them from using GPS to track people without a warrant.
Police Amassing Databases of License Plate Information
If that wasn’t bad enough, some law enforcement agencies are apparently amassing databases of license plate information collected through this method. That could create real problems; for example, it could let authorities know the license plate number of every car that drove into an area where a rally or a gun show was taking place.
The amount of data gathered through these efforts is massive; Jersey City, N.J., might have as many as two million license plate images on file. That information can be stored indefinitely in most states and shared with federal agencies.
It isn’t hard to imagine the Department of Homeland Security assembling a national database of such information. Such a database could be used to track people nationwide.
Your License Plate Could Be Used to Frame You
If tracking wasn’t bad enough, this data could get innocent people framed for crimes. Police could use it to locate suspects or potential suspects by seeing what cars were in a particular area at a specific time. This is scary because people could end up arrested for simply driving in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Police in Yonkers, New York, admitted that their detectives use the information in investigations. That means you could be arrested simply because you were driving through an area where a crime has been committed. Persons might be charged simply because police find out their car was in the area.
Another nightmare could occur if a criminal simply stole your license plate and put it on his car. If crooks realize that cops can track their movements through license plates, they’ll simply get out the old screw driver and help themselves to somebody else’s license plates.
Worse, a crook making a getaway can trade his license plates for yours. That means police will be looking for you instead of the real bad guys. This is pretty scary considering the number of innocent people in the US that get prosecuted and imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit.
Getting on a police list can lead to prison or even death row, particularly if you don’t have the money for a decent defense attorney. Around 130 death row inmates have been found to actually be innocent in the United States. These people had better legal representation than most.
Obviously, you don’t want to get on the police department’s list for any reason, yet if you drive through a lot of cities, you’re on their list. These lists could be used for mass roundups of suspects. Such roundups might occur if police are under public pressure to solve a crime.
It isn’t hard to imagine cops trying to get a DNA sample from every man who drove through a neighborhood where a rape took place. That kind of outrageous abuse has already occurred in some foreign countries.
License Plate Tracking Only the tip of the Iceberg
Now here’s the really frightening thing: License plate tracking is only the tip of the iceberg. Government agencies are collecting vast amounts of information about our movements and our locations.
Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA and the FBI are monitoring the length and location of phone calls. Some of Snowden’s revelations also indicate that those agencies are tracking emails, tweets, and other online communications as well.
That metadata could be coordinated with license plate information to effectively track you. If authorities see you made a phone call from Yonkers, they could check the Yonkers police database to see where you drove in the city.
That means the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms could check to see if you visited a gun store or a gun show. The IRS could check and see when you visited your accountant or if you stopped at a vault company where untaxed cash is stored.
The ways this could be abused are endless. There’s also the possibility that the databases could be hacked or the information shared with people outside of law enforcement. A private detective or a reporter could check with his buddy on the force to find out where you drove in town and figure out what stores you visited.
In other words, you have no more privacy if you drive your own car. That’s pretty frightening, and it appears to be perfectly legal.
How to Get Around License Plate Tracking
Fortunately, there are some ways that a clever person can get around license plate tracking. A good one is to simply walk or ride a bicycle. Such movements can be monitored through surveillance cameras, but there’s no license plate number to easily identify you that way.
Another is to use a rental car or borrow somebody else’s vehicle. That way a license plate not associated with you will be on file. Another method is to take advantage of car sharing services that are available in many American cities. These let you rent vehicles for less than an hour for short trips. A big advantage to this is that you don’t go to a rental agency so there is no record of you on file at the rental company’s office.
There’s also public transit; yes, there are surveillance cameras on many trains and buses, but there’s no easy way to track you like a license plate number. If you take the bus or train and pay for it the old fashioned way with cash, it is nearly impossible for somebody to track you, particularly in a crowded system.
You can take advantage of taxi cabs in a similar way if they’re available in your area. Simply pay the cab driver in cash; some of them will turn off the meter if you give them a big tip. That, too, can make it hard to track you.
Okay, these methods seem paranoid, but the ACLU’s revelations indicate that an organized system of tracking Americans’ travel and day-to-day movements is being developed. Since most Americans do most of their travel by car, it seems obvious that law enforcement wants to track most Americans.
If you want to stay off the grid, you might have to rethink your automobile use. Instead of being a ticket to freedom, your car could be the method by which Big Brother tracks your every move.