Government Surveillance Targets License Plates

Government’s relentless search for ever newer and more efficient ways in which to employ technology to gather data on citizens and with which to generate revenues, has found a new, favored toy:  license-plate scanners. 

Cities across the country, especially in the land of sunshine and surveillance — Los Angeles, California — are buying $20,000 license-plate scanners with abandon.  The devices are installed on police cruisers (and probably other municipal vehicles, reportedly in some cities including street cleaning trucks).  These high-tech snooping devices rapidly gather, analyze, and store digitized information on up to 1,500 license plates each and every minute they are in use. 

City police and elected officials claim — as they always do — that these high-tech devices are employed only for the safety of the public and will be used sparingly and carefully so as to avoid invading citizens’ privacy.  However, the lure of money to be generated by license-plate scanners to identify parking ticket scofflaws, for example, obviously trumps privacy concerns.  Of course, if it’s not being done already, it is only a short matter of time before data generated by these surveillance devices will be used by police, prosecutors and private lawyers to try and prove where a certain vehicle was at a certain date and time.

At least one city — Tiburon, California — is considering placing the license-plate recognition cameras at all entry and exit roads in that San Francisco Bay area city.  Such friendliness sure makes me want to drive out there and visit.

53 comments Add your comment

for real

August 14th, 2009
6:50 am


August 14th, 2009
7:24 am

Bob, you didn’t need to go all the way to California for this story. Your own AJC has done stories about Sandy Springs having these devices.


August 14th, 2009
7:28 am

It’s the information age. It’s only a matter of time and when, not if, the data collected will be sold and who that data will be sold to. Cheating husbands/wives, corporate recruiting scouts, the repo guys/gals, private detectives, student blackmailers, corporate blackmailers… It’s only a matter of time before all information is data-based, collated, and sold. When, not, if.

Then it’s just a matter of who will be FIRST^^ to buy, just to be first.


August 14th, 2009
7:28 am

Good Bob! California will be glad if you just stay away! I just wish there was some way we could keep you out of America.


August 14th, 2009
7:31 am

I just finished reading about a traffic ticket mailed from Great Britain to a man in Sweden because his 20 ton snow machine was supposedly parked illegally on a British street.They’re still scratching their heads over that one.

My Brother-in-law was charged with hit and run in Kansas City,Mo. when he and his vehicle were easily proven to be 1800 mies away at the time of the incident and he has never been in Kansas City.

This is just two incidents that I know of where information has been wrongly applied.As more and more information is compiled almost everyone will be a victim of this foolishness.Be prepared.


August 14th, 2009
7:48 am

Thank you, Bob Barr, a great American, for this information. Our rights and privacy are slowly, but surely, being snatched away. Wake up America before it’s too late……we’ve got to stop this insidious behaviour by our city, state and federal officials or our grand children will be living in a communist state.


August 14th, 2009
7:48 am

With all the crazy stuff happening these days, I don’t mind and might actually appreciate the government knowing where I am when in the public domain…I bet the lady that just got abducted up in Blairsville would be glad to know that the government knew exactly where she was and that someone was on the way to get her…


August 14th, 2009
7:51 am

And as Clyde rightly points out, and I can attest to, all information databases, especially in their infancy, will be hacked and abused mercilessly. They’ll harden their defenses, and begin sales like everyone else to pay for it. Might call themselves Equifax or some-such.
It’s a fun toy with the potential to destroy so much, so auto-magically. Useful for one or two legal court cases, and useful for 10,000 illegal purposes. And that’s just day one.


August 14th, 2009
7:52 am

Maybe you could do us a favor and move to California. Hopefully then when the big earthquake hits maybe you and all your liberal friends will simply disappear into the ocean. By the way how do you like your obama now, he has proven himself to be quite the idiot.

David S

August 14th, 2009
7:58 am

If the government did not have the ability to tax or confiscate (drug war) they would never be able to afford these devices. Simple solution – get rid of government.

[...] the UK, Japan and Brazil are following, longtime privacy advocate and erstwhile scourge of ECHELON, Bob Barr, reports in his Atlantic Journal and Constitution blog, that increasing numbers of jurisdications in the States are indeed investing in license plate [...]


August 14th, 2009
8:06 am

Bob, unless there is a warrant with your name on it, I’m not sure why you would care if the police scans your license while you are on a public road. Do you really believe this violates your privacy rights?

ant banks

August 14th, 2009
8:11 am

clyde, mistakes happen and i am sure that your b-inlaw was vindicated. but as you point out anomalies, please point out the countless times that this technology can help. Amber Alerts, robberies, drug trafficking, etc. if you are not doin’ anything, i don’t see a problem. however, if you are a shady character look out.


August 14th, 2009
8:15 am

It is also just a matter of time before these OCR scanners are deployed along the road sides where the time it takes for you to pass 2 of them can be used to calculate your speed and issue you a speeding ticket.


August 14th, 2009
8:19 am

I am so sick of the government looking out for me. Just leave me the he** alone. However, you keep voting for these wackos to stay in office.


August 14th, 2009
8:24 am

“if you are not doin’ anything, i don’t see a problem. however, if you are a shady character look out”____________
You are missing the point….I have to prove my innocence?


August 14th, 2009
8:33 am

Folks, this isn’t a left/right issue, it’s an authoritarian/libertarian issue which cuts across ideologies. I suppose I’m moderate to slightly left, but strongly opposed to authoritarian governments. I support the ACLU AND the NRA.

I might disagree with Bob Barr on some issues, but he’s been a good strong voice of reason for many years. I’m not surprised that someone from Kalifornia (uber alles!) dislikes him.

redneck recluse

August 14th, 2009
8:52 am

The license plate is the property of the issuing State not the owner of the vehicle.


August 14th, 2009
8:57 am

Now for a privacy rights question, which is what this is all about. SS#’s were banned from tracking by the govn’t, because they decided it was a “bad idea”. Will businesses start hiring and firing based on where a car’s been?

If, of age, children drive to a bar… Will that become the basis for the janitor to become CEO of a company? I’ll put it in the extreme, but, the way business is going today, people are running their businesses into the ground through ideology overcoming practical business sense. I’m just curious about that…

For instance, moderators apparently can’t pass along a phrase such as, “Lead, Follow, or…” Fill in the gap yourself. Ideology. Running business, or ruining business?


August 14th, 2009
9:01 am

think the real problem starts when people start noticing the tracking and start evading, though. Matching car models to license plate numbers is the next logical step. Recognition software. Proof of valid data.

Still, though, framing anyone for a crime is going to get a whole lot easier for quite some time should this new ‘thing’ take off, and I suspect it will. Everyone wants to know what everyone else is doing and where they’re going and why. It’s the nature of survival.

It’s a love/hate relationship. People want to know, to control others, convince others, and follows the theme of “Lead, follow, or get the out of my way.” In order to do that, you’ve got to know what others are doing, and that is getting so much easier to do. Yet, online surveys are consistently hacked to skew the data. License plates don’t lie, normally. It’s something people don’t think to hide yet. It’s more difficult and dangerous to hide. Hence not as easy… Like credit scores. Whole new brand of paranoia parachute pants out there.

Auto-Moderation leads to this post because I don’t care for losing my mind when the govn’t autofilters. Sad to say that it’s govn’t control over how I say something.


August 14th, 2009
9:02 am

ant banks,
In a perfect world the government would scan license plates and catch the bad guys and the innocent wouldn’t know anything about it.Unfortunately that isn’t the case.If you ever have to go through what my brother-in-law had to go through to prove his innocence to a prosecuting attorny you’ll have a whole new understanding of how the law can work.I said it was easily proven that he wasn’t within 1800 miles of the incident.The trouble comes when you have to prove it to people that don’t want to listen.


August 14th, 2009
9:06 am

Maybe it’s the links toward India being filtered… Might actually be for your own good. Wasn’t the cussing, lemme test F*. Ever curious. Could just be overcautious on the links, aside from the guy up there who linked to his moniker, avatar, etc.

Nice hack BTW to get around linking w/in the article. Kinda the whole point of what we’re talking about, for those who didn’t notice.


August 14th, 2009
9:19 am


You don’t have to prove your innocence in America but you sure as hell better prove you’re not guilty.


August 14th, 2009
9:37 am

Clyde are you serious? you dont have to prove your innocence in America? how many bricks fell on your head. The point is the Government is going to use any and all information they can gather to fish for something they do not believe you as a supposed citizen of this country should be taking part in. Your freedom of life is severely limited when you start to believe ” if you are not breaking the law, then why should you mind?” because when is the line drawn on how much is too much? if your willing to give up a little of your freedom then you had better be willing to give up all your freedom. That simple thought is scary.

You liberals have to be more informed on your rights and what they truly mean. Instead of trying to police every single step us Americans make. Take a few hours out of your day and read the Constitution and Bill of Rights, maybe then you will see the true design and purpose of this country.


August 14th, 2009
11:24 am


You can’t prove you’re innocent.The best you can hope for is a not guilty verdict.


August 14th, 2009
1:49 pm

Not to mention license plate theft will be on the rise…

Chris Broe

August 14th, 2009
2:43 pm

The government wont be satisfied until all the fun of road trips has been stripped away from all of us who love to read license plates for fun. Next, big brother will invent a device that counts cows on the right vs left side of the road, and ruin that good time too. Worse, when 1984 gets here, they will probably see to it that there’s a radio station that only plays, “99 bottles of beer on the wall”, taking away the necessity to sing in the car. I’m canceling my woodchuck hunting trip to new york this year, man. Why go when you cant have fun in the car?

[...] GOVERNMENT SURVEILLANCE targets license plates. [...]


August 14th, 2009
3:02 pm

“The license plate is the property of the issuing State not the owner of the vehicle.”

They’ll own the ink they use to tattoo your national ID number on your forehead, too.

Who owned those fancy numeric branding irons in Nazi Germany?

n o n c i t i z e n 2 0 0 9

August 14th, 2009
3:22 pm

I don’t have a problem with governments using a great technology to catch wanted people based on known license plates. But I have a huge problem with them targeting specific people who are not suspected of any crime. That is exactly what the criminal government of Gwinnett County, Georgia is doing.

They are using their devices to scan for the license plates of people who are listed on Georgia’s Sex Offender Registry. The criminal government says they are using the devices to scan for those plates in parks and similar places. This is in spite of the fact that there is nothing illegal about a Registered person going to those places or being in them. It is also certainly not illegal for the child or spouse of a Registered person to go to those places by using a family car that is Registered with the criminal governments.

Their activity follows the general pattern of most criminal governments when it comes to people who are listed on their panacea Registries. They feel as if those people are a group who automatically (and despite any laws or Constitutions) have no claim any rights beyond only the most unalienable. They are a group that can be targeted and harassed in any manner that the criminal government can get away with. Despite of any facts and with no due process. Are there any decent Americans who support this?

I asked some Gwinnett County officials exactly what is done when a Registered vehicle is located in a park, for example. I was essentially told that the officer “checks out the situation”. So I suppose that means they go throughout the park until they find the Registered person’s daughter (or whomever) perhaps having a picnic with some friends. I suppose they then question them to ensure nothing is illegal is going on? Perhaps they try to search the people?

(continued in next post …)

sox fan

August 14th, 2009
3:30 pm

Just wait, if you have a business and your car is registered to that business, any state you travel to will want a % of your income.


August 14th, 2009
3:54 pm

We beat the Chinese to efficiently use our snooping devices to snoop on our snoop-worthy citizens. We show the Chinese we are still the leader in the fields we deign to lead.

[...] via Government Surveillance Targets License Plates | The Barr Code. [...]


August 14th, 2009
4:06 pm

“Good Bob! California will be glad if you just stay away! I just wish there was some way we could keep you out of America.”

That’s right Bob. Go to communist China where the government doesn’t police every movement of every citizen. No wait, they do do that. It’s here that they supposedly don’t do it. Never mind, you stay, I’ll go.


August 14th, 2009
4:16 pm

What’s America coming to, when you can’t skip on paying your parking tickets, and then cleverly avoid the authorities who would want you to pay them like a law-abiding citizen? Just think, smarter rapists, burglars, murderers, and other brilliant criminals, will now find it slightly harder to pursue their craft, because they’ll have to avoid these cameras, or do something to thwart being caught by them. And think of the people who are wrongly accused of something, when they’re in Sweden or another state, and can prove it! It might take a day to establish they didn’t do something wrong; clearly that detriment outweighs any law enforcement benefits that might result.

The next thing you know, if a member of the law enforcement community actually personally witnesses you committing a crime, he’ll be able to arrest you immediately, without a discussion like the one we’re having now. Think of the abuses that could result: the police officer might hold a grudge against you, might choose to lie in court, might shoot you without provocation, might give you a parking ticket you don’t deserve, might watch you to see if you do anything illegal without proper authorization! The limits on our freedoms are boundless, and we could be in serious trouble here. What’s next?


August 14th, 2009
4:18 pm

Based upon the comments of the sheeple in this thread, I truly fear for my Republic. It took two generations to create the tomc majority. so sad.

Joan of Argghh!

August 14th, 2009
4:18 pm

Not that I’m disagreeing with the spirit of this essay, but 1500 scans per minute?

My math’s not that rusty, so there must be something left out of that statement that would explain how many license plates attached to 12-17-foot long vehicles can parade in front of a fixed point. I am assuming it speaks more to 1500 scans/minute per municipality?


August 14th, 2009
4:32 pm

If you are innocent, augue your case — if you are guilty, augue points of law.


August 14th, 2009
4:43 pm

We need legislation that extends 4th Amendment protections to electronic surveillance and digital media.

But in this instance, a dose of massive civil disobedience is called for.


August 14th, 2009
4:56 pm

I was recently reading about the time before we were numbers,data and statistics expected to know myriad, complicated rules created by people we have no contact with and, I know I’m naive, but it sure sounded sweet to me.

Mikey NTH

August 14th, 2009
5:26 pm

Joan – I think it means that the device could make those many scans per minute; in other words it is very fast. Like you said, it is unlikely to actually do so in practice because vehicles don’t move that fast.

A pratical (not philosophical) problem that would arise is getting the state that issued the plate identified along with the number (I think it is possible that two states can issue the same number) which could lead to identification problems, and another practical problem is obscuring dirt on the plate.

Mikey NTH

August 14th, 2009
5:30 pm

Trouble – the problem with the Fourth Amendment here is that the plate is in public, and if an officer can observe the plate, then an electronic device also can. Different than using heat scanners on houses to find ‘grow rooms’, because an officer (IIRC) cannot see the heat from a public street/sidewalk.


August 14th, 2009
5:46 pm

Just make all of the tracking information public on line so citizens can follow politicians and police around, too.

Mark K

August 14th, 2009
6:01 pm

These systems have been in place in the UK for over 10 years. During that time, crime rates have dropped significantly. In the USA, I have read numerous stories like this one – the “loss of privacy”. The unfortunate part is that there are never any stories of the good things these systems do – there have been several Amber Alert recoveries using Plate readers, numerous murder and rape investigations solved and countless stolen vehicles recovered… many times with the thief still in the vehicle. I for one, do not want my right to privacy violated but I am happy to give a little to have these types of crimes resolved.


August 14th, 2009
7:24 pm


You are happy to give away your freedom?

To whatever degree? I would rather the bad guys steal my stuff than to let government decide how I should respond. They (government) screw it up EVERY time.

But then again, I am used to thinking for myself. Sorry, Dude, if you are not :-)


August 14th, 2009
10:12 pm

Thanks for your incite once again, Mr. Barr. Like you, I’m so sick of our government’s use of technology for our “safety.” I’m not afraid of very much, especially going out into public. So why has this program not been shared with the public for review in advance? Why aren’t the citizens asked what they want with regard to security vs. privacy invasion? I”m sick of our freedoms vanishing daily!


August 15th, 2009
7:33 am

The Anti-Christ will find this a very useful tool for tracking all you people who have been left behind.


August 15th, 2009
10:37 am

Lets get right to it. We need RF devices implanted underneath our skin to track our movements. If were not doing anything “wrong”, we have nothing to worry about. The authorities know what’s best, that’s why they’re the authorities. I relinquish my autonomy in return for safety. I realize my need for this oversight because I can’t save myself from myself or others. And I’m very scared and twitchy.


August 16th, 2009
9:02 am

Didn’t Bob vote for The Patriot Act? raptured:Nice to know you follow a belief that didn’t exist in the Christian Church until the 1800’s with the rantings of John Nelson Darby.


August 17th, 2009
11:43 am

The Supreme Court should take on this issue and ban any practice such as this. These type activities are clear violations of the 4th amendment.