California state law permits car owners to cover their legally parked cars to protect them against weather and incidental damage. It’d be easy to assume that, because cars can be covered in their entirety, it would also be perfectly okay for motorists to keep only their license plates covered on those same legally parked vehicles. That’s not necessarily the case: Another law prohibits obscuring the license plates of parked cars in California.
State lawmakers considered a bill to resolve ambiguities between the two laws this week. It failed in a subcommittee vote on Tuesday, May 9, but backers say a similar bill will likely resurface in the future because the broader issues aren’t going away. Superficially, this may seem like a minor quibble but the bill is symptomatic of an underlying tug between privacy rights and security. Privacy advocates want to ensure that Californians can cover their license plates and cars to prevent them from being photographed by automated license-plate readers (LPRs). That’s the thing in the photo above, the object that looks like WALL-E’s head sitting on the rear decklid of a police car. Whether mobile or stationary (typically mounted near speed-reading cameras or surveillance cameras in parking lots, as in the image below), these plate readers are operated by both law-enforcement agencies and for-profit private companies.
“Why is it that you can cover your entire car to protect from the elements, but not just the license plate? We’re just talking surface area.” – Dave Maass, EFF
License-plate-reading technology harvests location data from thousands of license plates in a matter of hours. Over time, this location data can paint a detailed portrait of a car owner’s personal life, including, for a few examples, information about where they travel, what doctors they see, or which religious services they attend.
In the case of LPRs operated by private companies, the compiled data is offered for sale to other private businesses, including insurance companies, debt collectors, and lenders. Information collected by law-enforcement agencies may be considered public information in some cases. In both public and private spheres, there are often inconsistent rules that govern data storage and retention. In many cases, there are no rules at all.
“At least 14 states” do have laws that address license-plate readers and the retention of data, including California, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“This data puts a wide variety of individuals at risk,” wrote Dave Maass, a researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit organization that defends civil liberties in the digital realm. He wrote a letter on behalf of the organization in support of the proposed bill, which failed in a 6-5 vote in the California state senate’s Transportation and Housing Committee.
“Why is it that you can cover your entire car to protect from the elements, but not just the license plate? We’re just talking surface area,” Maass told Car and Driver. He ticked off potential concerns: Data sets from license-plate readers could be used to conduct surveillance on churches and houses of worship, medical centers, political protests, and gun shows. They could even be used to stalk domestic-violence victims, he said.
These aren’t hypothetical worries. Documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that the Drug Enforcement Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives had considered using license-plate readers to monitor attendees at a 2009 Phoenix-area gun show. In 2012, license-plate readers were used to track the whereabouts of the mayor of Minneapolis, prompting a backlash. In 2015, the Boston police department suspended its use of license-plate readers after doubts emerged about the department’s ability to safeguard sensitive data.
California’s proposed legislation, sponsored by Republican senator Joel Anderson, would have affirmed motorists’ right to keep their license plates covered as long as long-enforcement officers retained the ability to easily lift a plate cover for inspection, just as they can do under the law allowing full car covers. Despite that provision, police agencies including the California Police Chiefs Association have voiced opposition to the legislation. A spokesperson for that group did not respond to a request for comment; generally speaking, law-enforcement agencies have argued that mass data sets compiled using LPR machines can be a valuable tool in investigations, quickly identifying vehicles wanted in connection to cases such as child abductions.
Billions of license-plate-reader records already exist, and the number will grow over time. Car-sharing vehicles and autonomous cars may soon be equipped with license-plate readers to increase revenues for fleet operators. As cars become more connected both to other vehicles and to road infrastructure, there’s potential for location information to spread across a citywide network in a matter of moments.
Even now, it can be captured and distilled quickly. Through a public-records request, the Electronic Frontier Foundation revealed how license-plate readers were used in Oakland, California, to collect more than 63,000 data points over an eight-day period. With as few as two vehicles using the readers, researchers found Oakland could capture data from across the city, “with a particular focus on lower-income neighborhoods,” according to the report.
Whether it’s certain neighborhoods or segments of political dissidents, license-plate readers have drawn concern that they could identify certain groups or demographics or even note which cars were consistently in locations nearby. One argument in favor of California’s proposed legislation, Maass said, was that the bill could protect people from being targeted by the Trump administration.
“For everyone who voted against it, it’s incumbent on them to come up with another solution,” he said.
Maass said he expects legislation could be introduced again early next year. Meanwhile, Californians who wish to protect themselves against automated plate-reading technology are well advised to use a legal cover over the entire vehicle. It’s better for your car’s paint anyway.