License plate cameras help solve crimes but raise privacy concerns

In 2022, a teenager accused of shooting a young mother in the back of the head in Morris was caught driving a stolen car using a license plate camera.

That same year, a man wanted for a murder in Maywood was arrested in Northbrook after police tracked his car there via license plate cameras. The man had previously been released after serving a prison sentence for a 1994 murder.

After a woman escaped a kidnapping earlier this year, police were able to track down the vehicle in Waukegan and charge the suspect with kidnapping.

Using automatic license plate recognition (ALPR), police in the Chicago area have been able to arrest suspects for a number of heinous crimes. But they don't just go after criminals. They track everyone they see, noting the location of every car, when it's first caught on camera, and which direction it's traveling – billions of license plates across the country.

Alarmed by the reach and rapid proliferation of these cameras, privacy advocates in Illinois have filed suit, claiming the cameras violate constitutional protections against unreasonable searches. They say it amounts to a national surveillance system of innocent motorists.

“This system has brought Big Brother to Illinois,” said plaintiff Stephanie Scholl of Chicago. “This is not a sensible security measure – it's a dystopia playing out in real time in our backyards.”

Mounted on poles or police cars, the cameras can automatically take photos of any passing vehicle, recording the license plate number, GPS location, time, direction and, in some cases, make and model, and possibly occupants.

The information is then run through a list of FBI, state and local police “hot plates” wanted for theft or other crimes or as a result of Amber Alerts or missing persons reports. Police typically pay private companies to install the cameras, operate them and maintain them, and must agree to share their photos with the vendor in order to gain nationwide access to the data.

According to state police, the cameras will not be used for minor offenses such as speeding, which are committed in Chicago and some other places with a different array of cameras.

A lawsuit has been filed against the Illinois State Police claiming that the use of automatic license plate readers is unconstitutional. Stephanie Scholl, one of the plaintiffs, in Chicago on June 3, 2024. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune)

Critics fear that the networks could be misused. For example, police have experienced this when they tracked down ex-wives or rivals using license plates or when they accidentally stopped the wrong vehicles.

In the Chicago area, the impetus for the rollout of license plate cameras was sparked in part by a series of highway shootings. In response to the shooting of postal worker Tamara Clayton on Interstate 57, lawmakers passed a $12 million bill in 2019 to install the cameras on all highways in Cook County.

In 2022, Governor JB Pritzker added $20 million to that authorization to expand it to 21 additional counties, including toll roads. There are now more than 300 cameras statewide.

Since the cameras were installed, the number of shootings on the highways has dropped dramatically. From a peak of 310 such shootings in 2021, the number fell by almost half in 2022 and another 32% in 2023. The number of shootings has dropped again this year, while the number of arrests, gun seizures and recovered carjackings or stolen cars has increased significantly.

State police credited the cameras and other measures with helping reduce shootings and said the information would be used only for law enforcement purposes. They also set up a transparency page to answer questions about the cameras.

Jeffrey Schwab, one of the lawyers who filed suit against the cameras, pointed out that there were far fewer shootings in 2019, before the cameras were installed, than there will be in 2022 or 2023. Since reaching a record high in 2021, shootings have declined nationwide.

The statistics do not show that the cameras themselves have been effective in reducing the number of shootings on Illinois highways, Schwab wrote in an email.

“Correlation does not equal causation,” he said. “Moreover, a reduction in shootings would not justify violating every individual's constitutional right to privacy, especially because the government has other constitutional means to address this problem.”

The lawsuit was filed against the Illinois State Police by the nonprofit Liberty Justice Center on behalf of two Chicago-area residents.

But numerous suburban police departments have also connected to statewide camera surveillance systems. Officials say they have played a key role in catching criminals, including the arrest of an arsonist in Homer Glen, shootings in Elmhurst and Woodridge, and a kidnapping in Waukegan.

John Millner, director of government relations for the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, said the cameras are critical to solving crimes.

“I don't know how we managed without them,” he said. “We catch people for kidnapping, arson and murder. If we didn't catch them, these people would continue to commit such crimes.”

He said the police were very careful about protecting privacy.

“Privacy is a big thing for us,” he said. “We don't live in a Soviet republic. We don't look at people who have done nothing.”

Vehicles on the Eisenhower Expressway pass license plate readers mounted on the Leavitt Street overpass in Chicago, June 4, 2024. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)
Vehicles on the Eisenhower Expressway pass license plate readers mounted on the Leavitt Street overpass in Chicago, June 4, 2024. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

The cameras are not only used by the police. Schools, universities, health care providers, businesses and homeowners associations across the country also use the cameras.

A few large companies dominate the ALPR business.

One of the largest is Motorola Solutions, whose Vigilant system has more than 2,000 clients, 15,000 cameras and 44 billion license plate scans.

Flock Safety reports that 175 police departments in Illinois and 4,000 communities nationwide use the system, about half of which are police departments. In Vernon Hills alone, it has been used to recover 14 stolen vehicles and three missing persons, and to identify 39 wanted vehicles.

DRN, a provider focused on private, commercial use, boasts of capturing over 300 million license plates each month in over 600 jurisdictions.

DRN's information may also be sold to third parties for debt collection, repossessions or marketing purposes to create customer profiles with name, address and phone number. The company's selling point is: “Turn passing vehicles into customers.”

In response to privacy concerns, the state of Illinois passed a law to prevent the information from being used to track people who travel for abortions from states that prohibit the procedure, as well as to prevent the tracking of immigrants suspected of being in the country without legal permission. However, such laws can be difficult to enforce.

More generally, privacy advocates say, while the cameras are useful for responding to current crimes, they should not be used to track past whereabouts. However, many systems can store the recorded information for up to 90 days because, police say, crimes are often not discovered or reported until long after they have occurred.

The American Civil Liberties Union questioned the effectiveness of the cameras, raising concerns that private companies and law enforcement agencies were operating an Orwellian-style “mass surveillance system” enhanced by artificial intelligence.

Manufacturers admit that the cameras are not always accurate, which could lead to dangerous misidentification of innocent drivers as wanted persons. The ACLU also reports that the FBI's license plate database is “notoriously inaccurate,” for example when recovered stolen cars remain on the list.

A license plate reader is attached to a police vehicle at a police station on Kedzie Avenue in Chicago, June 4, 2024. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)
A license plate reader attached to a police vehicle at a police station on Kedzie Avenue in Chicago, June 4, 2024. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

For its part, Flock has stated that it has taken “strict measures to protect the privacy of residents.” It does not use facial recognition, does not sell information to third parties and stores data for 30 days. Homeowners can register their license plate to have it removed from recordings within their community.

For communities that have surveillance cameras, the ACLU recommends taking steps to limit their use.

One example is New Hampshire's state law that requires law enforcement agencies to delete non-hit license plate data within three minutes.

The ACLU recommends destroying data that does not match a sought-after license plate within 72 hours, prohibiting its release to anyone other than law enforcement, and restricting the information to the agency that recorded it.