License-plate-reading traffic cams may let anyone track everywhere you go, secretly

License-plate recognition is designed to help police catch felons, but the secondary effect is frightening


Massachusetts police agencies are testing technology that would let them check the legal status of drivers without racial profiling, stopping them for real or imagined traffic offenses, or even putting down a cup of coffee or radar gun.

The governor has approved state grants worth $500,000 to pay for Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) systems for the State Police and 26 local departments.

Using motion detectors or magnetic strips in the road tell when a car is in the target area, ALPR systems trigger visual or infrared flashes to light up the front and back license plates of cars.

Rather than giving speeders a ticket automatically, as intersection-monitoring cameras do in some urban areas in California, much of England and other areas, ALPR systems are designed to detect the license plate number and run it against a database of all the registered license plates accessible by State Police.

If the owner of the plate has any outstanding warrants, traffic violations, traffic tickets or other issues that could identify someone as a "person of interest" to police, an application running on a PC in the police cruiser alerts officers, giving the driver's name, description of the car and alleged offenses .

The systems are designed to alert police in the cruisers quickly enough to give chase, vastly improving their ability to identify and arrest wanted felons.

It also gives them the chance to harass passing motorists for no good reason, and subjects every driver passing an ALPR-equipped cruiser to a records-check by police with no more justification than their legal presence within the same area an ALPR-equipped cruiser, according to Massachusetts civil rights lawyer Harvey Silvergate.

"There comes a point where the surveillance is so pervasive and total that it's a misnomer to call a society free any longer," Silvergate told the Boston Herald.

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