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The danger of license plate readers in post-Roe America

A license plate reader in California.
Enlarge / A license plate reader in California.

Since the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last month, America’s extensive surveillance state could soon be turned against those seeking abortions or providing abortion care.

Currently, nine states have almost entirely banned abortion, and more are expected to follow suit. Many Republican lawmakers in these states are discussing the possibility of preventing people from traveling across state lines to obtain an abortion. If such plans are enacted and withstand legal scrutiny, one of the key technologies that could be deployed to track people trying to cross state lines is automated license plate readers (ALPRs). They’re employed heavily by police forces across the US, but they’re also used by private actors.

ALPRs are cameras that are mounted on street poles, overpasses, and elsewhere that can identify and capture license plate numbers on passing cars for the purpose of issuing speeding tickets and tolls, locating stolen cars, and more. State and local police maintain databases of captured license plates and frequently use those databases in criminal investigations.

The police have access to not only license plate data collected by their own ALPRs but also data gathered by private companies. Firms like Flock Safety and Motorola Solutions have their own networks of ALPRs that are mounted to the vehicles of private companies and organizations they work with, such as car repossession outfits. Flock, for instance, claims it’s collecting license plate data in roughly 1,500 cities and can capture data from over a billion vehicles every month.

“They have fleets of cars that have ALPRs on them that just suck up data. They sell that to various clients, including repo firms and government agencies. They also sell them to police departments,” says Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU. “It’s a giant, nationwide mass surveillance system. That obviously has serious implications should interstate travel become part of forced-birth enforcement.”

In a statement to WIRED, a Flock Safety spokesperson said the company does not provide customer data to third parties. “We will never share or sell customer data to any third parties. While we cannot speak for any other vendors, we have never and will never sell data to repossession companies or third-party organizations, including anti-abortion groups,” the company said.

However, anyone can become a first party by purchasing the company’s cameras. (Its customers often include neighborhoods and home owners associations.) Flock Safety says its cameras are installed in more than 1,500 cities in 42 states, which are connected to Flock’s centralized camera network. A March 2021 Vice investigation based on Flock-related emails obtained from nearly 20 police departments allows anyone who administers a Flock camera to “make the data Flock captures available to, say, the police, the home owner association’s board, or the individual members of an entire neighborhood.” In addition to private customers, Flock has also reportedly partnered with hundreds of police departments across the US.

Motorola Solutions did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication.

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