They peer down upon our city's intersections, waiting to witness traffic transgressions. They steadily scan Interstate 19, catching the random smuggler in their cold, technological gaze. They ride along in cop cars all across the country, constantly noting our whereabouts through a license plate's rich portal.
In a security-obsessed nation, these electronic eyes—aimed at everything from speeders and narcos to petty car thieves—have quickly become a way of life. And while their benefits in fighting crime and reducing red-light crashes are beyond question, this increasingly ability to pierce our privacy arrives with a host of unanswered questions.
"It's everything from license plate readers and video surveillance to cameras on police officers and cellphone tracking," says Alessandra Soler, executive director of the Arizona American Civil Liberties Union. "There's rarely any chance for the public to weigh in on this technology and how it's going to affect their liberties and privacy rights."
Still, the justice system is no stranger to this issue. It was only a year ago that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police had violated a suspected drug trafficker's Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches by placing a GPS tracking device on his car.
But more often, legal thought has simply not kept pace with surveillance technology. Consider observation drones, increasingly sought after by law enforcement agencies as powerful yet relatively inexpensive tools. Even the UA has received drone authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration, though college officials say that approval is tied only to a research project in the College of Engineering and has no connection to campus police.
Sometimes, lawmakers have stepped into this regulatory vacuum. For instance, a bill under consideration by the Arizona Legislature would make it illegal for any law enforcement agency to use a drone "to gather, store or collect evidence of any type, including audio or video recordings or both, or other information that is not specifically outlined in a search warrant."
Yet the simple license plate may be the most obsequious pawn in this privacy tug-of-war. Scanners are commonly mounted on bridges and telephone poles, or attached to patrol cars, where they might be used to sweep entire parking lots—and read hundreds of plates in mere minutes.
The devices photograph every license plate within view, typically stamping each image with the time, date and GPS data. When a plate number is then run against law enforcement databases, vast details about you are instantly available. Police departments contend that this information is used only for very specific purposes, and any data that doesn't raise a red flag is immediately discarded.
To better understand precisely how police use license plate readers, the ACLU requested detailed policies from law enforcement agencies across 38 states last July. That included police departments in Phoenix and Tucson as well as the Pinal County Sheriff's Office.
Key questions involved how police use information gathered on law-abiding citizens by license plate readers. "Are they then allowed to share that info with private companies?" Soler asks. "What would limit small municipalities from selling that data to third-party marketers?"
This is not an abstract notion. In the 1990s, the Arizona Department of Motor Vehicles was roundly castigated following the revelation that it sold driver's license and vehicle information to marketing research firms.
According to Soler, control over that information remains critical. "License plate readers can have a legitimate purpose, such as scanning cars for unpaid fines," she says. "When they're used for that narrow purpose, there's no problem. But when they're used to track people, that's where it creates the potential for abuse.
"I don't think people realize how easily accessible their information is, and in every activity these days—from surfing the Internet to purchasing things—they can potentially have their privacy violated."
The Pima County Sheriff's Department says it does not use license plate readers, also known as LPRs. And while TPD does use the devices, they are primarily geared toward helping officers pinpoint stolen cars or find fugitives, says Sgt. Maria Hawke, a department spokeswoman. "But none of the information from all those license plates is retained anywhere. Once the unit is turned off, it purges everything."
Yet a record that a particular plate has been run is forwarded to the Arizona Criminal Justice Information System, or ACJIS, a database maintained by the state Department of Public Safety.
Nonetheless, individual license plate data "is never entered into any ACJIS database," says DPS spokesman Bart Graves. "The daily ACJIS and (National Crime Information Center) data file ... from stolen vehicles, warrants and stolen plates is provided to ACJIS agencies to use on the 'hot list' on the LPR. The 'hot list' is compared to license plates which are 'read' and the 'read' data is saved in another database on the LPR device."
Even less information is gleaned from cameras mounted at intersections to catch red-light runners, says Lt. Elise Souter of TPD's Traffic Enforcement Division. "We only record license plate information on violators. If we go back and look at the video, it is mostly just going to show cars going through the intersection. We really don't have the ability to focus in on faces or plates or any of that information."
Here again comes the tricky balance between privacy and safety: TPD reports that crashes at eight Tucson intersections have dropped from 200 to less than 75 a year since the cameras were installed.
It's less clear, however, what information is held by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which captures license plates from readers stationed along highways near the Mexican border. That includes devices at the Border Patrol's checkpoint on Interstate 19 between Tucson and Nogales.
"The license plate readers are used to monitor and target vehicles that are commonly used to transport bulk cash and illegal contraband along the U.S. interstates," says DEA spokeswoman Ramona Sanchez. "This is one of the mechanisms DEA uses to share and coordinate and de-conflict information with other state and local and federal law enforcement agencies. There is no other purpose we would use that for."
In other words, the shopworn refrain: If you're not doing anything wrong, you don't have anything to worry about.
But to Soler of the ACLU, things aren't quite so simple when it comes to vast amounts of knowledge about you, now available to law enforcement. "We're not saying (police) can't use the technology," she explains. "We're just saying there should be limits. We're leaving footprints everywhere we go and all that information is very valuable to a lot of people."