How License Plate Covers Would Protect Vulnerable Communities

EFF is a strong supporter of S.B. 712, a California bill that would allow vulnerable communities to cover their license plates when parked. This provides a way for individuals to protect their confidentiality when visiting sensitive locations, such as religious sites of worship, medical facilities, and social support centers.

Under current law, drivers can cover their entire vehicles, including the license plates, when parked. S.B. 712 simply says that you are allowed to cover just the plate when you are parked. This common-sense solution allows drivers to opt-out of unwanted data collection when they have reached their destinations, not unlike how installing an ad-blocker may prevent online advertisers from gathering your information. 

The threat to privacy is increasing as automated license plate readers (ALPRs) have made it easier for private companies to amass billions of records in commercial databases. This data can be used to track drivers in real time or to reveal their travel patterns and community networks. 

The danger is not hypothetical, as the examples below prove.  

Reproductive Health Services

License plate data gathered from and around reproductive health centers jeopardizes the privacy and safety of patients and health providers, and impedes access to these services. Already, anti-choice activists are trained to use license plate data to surveil patients and doctors, with one activist collecting more than 7,000 plates from facilities in Texas. As the Houston Chronicle reported:

One trainer bragged that her group not only tracked patient license plates, but also used plates to identify abortion doctors to see if they had admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, as required by law.

“We have a very sophisticated spreadsheet,” said the trainer, Karen Garnett, executive director of the Catholic Pro-Life Committee, adding, “You have license plates, car model, make, description of the person.”

Source: “Anti-abortion activists adopt a new tactic: tracking license plates.” Houston Chronicle, August 13, 2014

LGBTQ+ Communities 

As far back as the 1990s, license plates have been used to blackmail members of the LGBTQ community. As the Washington Post reported: 

It’s quite simple as extortion goes: Trail a married man out of a gay sex club. Take his license plate number. And later threaten to expose him unless he pays hush money. 

The term “fairy shaking” needs no definition within certain circles of the D.C. police department: A few rogue cops have been doing it for years and getting away with it, several law enforcement sources said. 

Source: “Stowe’s Sudden Fall from Grace.” Washington Post, November 30, 1997  

Religious Minorities

License plate data can be used to identify visitors to religious centers, a practice that has already been deployed to spy on Muslim-Americans in New York City. As Associated Press reported:

The NYPD Intelligence Division snapped pictures and collected license plate numbers of congregants as they arrived to pray…

If the NYPD badly wanted to know who was attending the mosque, they could write down the license plates of cars in the mosque parking lots, documents show. In some instances, police in unmarked cars outfitted with electronic license plate readers would drive down the street and record the plates of everyone parked near the mosque.

Source: “With cameras, informants, NYPD eyed mosques.” Associated Press.  February 23, 2012

Immigrant Communities 

Immigration & Customs Enforcement subscribes to a commercial database containing billions of ALPR data points collected by a private company.  This system allows a user to create alerts for targeted vehicles, allowing for real-time tracking of drivers.

ICE law enforcement personnel will query the LPR database using known license plate numbers associated with the aliens who are immigration enforcement priorities, based on investigative leads, to determine where and when the vehicle has traveled within a specified period of time. The results of the queries can assist in identifying the location of aliens who are immigration enforcement priorities… 

Source: “Access to License Plate Reader Commercial Data Service.” FBO.gov. April 2, 2015

License Plate Covers as a Solution

S.B. 712 would help protect the privacy of a driver by allowing them to cover their plate when they are lawfully parked. 

S.B. 712 would not prevent all forms of ALPR collection. For example, S.B. 712 would not prevent ALPRs from collecting plate data while a vehicle is in motion. Furthermore, S.B. 712 would allow law enforcement to inspect a covered license plate by lifting the flap, just as the current law allows police to inspect the license plate of a vehicle covered entirely by a tarp. 

What S.B. 712 does achieve is an important privacy protection: allowing the driver to protect the confidentiality of their destinations, be it their doctor’s office, house of worship, or their home. 


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Author: Dave Maass

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