If you’ve been a driver in the United States for any length of time, you have most likely passed at least one of those interactive road signs that show you how fast you’re driving. It turns out, those signs may be doing more than you think they are.
You can now add digital speed signs to the list of known automated license plate readers (ALPRs). According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), ALPRs can be found on “street poles, street lights, highway overpasses, mobile trailers, or attached to police squad cars.”
Thanks to a special notice released in August, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) will be using RU2 Systems trailer-mounted speed displays “retrofitted as mobile LPR [License Plate Reader] platforms.” RU2 Systems Inc. is a private Mesa, Arizona company.
According to the special notice, these platforms are in “high demand” throughout the United States.
Quartz reports that two other contracts “show that the DEA has hired a small machine shop in California, and another in Virginia, to conceal the readers within the signs. An RU2 representative said the company providing the LPR devices themselves is a Canadian firm called Genetec.”
The National License Plate Reader Program was launched by DEA back in 2008. Most recently, the program was described as “a federation of independent federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement license plate readers linked into a cooperative system, designed to enhance the ability of law enforcement agencies to interdict drug traffickers, money launderers or other criminal activities on high drug and money trafficking corridors and other public roadways throughout the U.S.,” in a DEA budget report.
LPRs can capture a shocking 2,000 license plates a minute, casting an extremely large net, overreaching into the privacy of Americans, in an attempt to making stopping criminals a little bit easier for police. What is most alarming to privacy advocates is that the real-time collection is taken so indiscriminately that no one really notices. Despite not providing consent, the license data is stored and used later for data mining.
“License plate readers are inherently a form of mass surveillance,” Dave Maass of EFF told Quartz. “You look at something like a wiretap and most of the time it’s looking for a specific person and capturing specific conversations with that person. But here they are collecting information on everybody, not all of whom have been accused of a crime, in case they may one day commit a crime. This is un-American.”
Senior policy analyst with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, Jay Stanley, told Quartz that arbitrarily collecting such a broad swath of data is wrong and that holding onto it for future analysis only makes a bad situation worse.
Professor of law and ethics at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, Kabrina Chang, told Quartz, “We as a society have to think long and hard about the consequences.” She questions what Americans are willing to give up to help law enforcement agents do their jobs.
The new license plate-reading speed signs should be in the hands of the DEA later this month.