The innovation of new technology can trigger privacy concerns and spark new regulation, and Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR) systems are no exception. ALPR systems can be installed in a static location or on mobile platforms (e.g., police cars or tow trucks), and continuously scan and record license plates that come within range. Private companies and law enforcement agencies are partnering up to install ALPR systems, building an enormous database of plate numbers that can be used to help locate criminals, among other uses. As ALPR databases continue to grow, the increasing instances of license numbers being recorded could result in near real-time tracking of individual vehicles.

Privacy advocates have raised concerns, arguing that people have a reasonable expectation that their plate number should be private. Additionally, ALPR systems capture data indiscriminately, meaning even non-criminals are being “tracked.” Some ALPR systems capture more than just a license plate. As the Virginia Supreme Court recently held in Neal v. Fairfax Cty. Police Dep't, No. 170247 (Apr. 26, 2018), even if the plate number is not “personal information,” other portions of the image may indeed be personal.

While litigation surrounding ALPRs is still in its infancy, initial decisions have held that the practice is generally lawful as there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in a license plate. In addition, ALPR companies successfully challenged a state law that would have prohibited private use of ALPRs, arguing that the law violated their First Amendment right to collect plate numbers and distribute them to their clients. While there is no blanket federal regulation addressing this technology, 16 states currently regulate the use of ALPR systems or their data, and 11 states currently have ALPR legislation pending.

TIP: The privacy issues surrounding ALPRs provides another example of the impact that privacy regulation can have on new technology. Companies with emerging technology should be proactive in understanding and monitoring privacy regulation and potential legislation to minimize risk.