Stationary Police Tag Readers

Photo by Mike Katz-Lacabe (CC BY)

In court last week while interviewing a police officer, I wanted to know how he knew my client happened to be on Interstate xx when the officer knew to pull my client over in an allegedly stolen car from another state. There were otherwise no driving infractions or other reason to to pick him out from the sea of cars whizzing by at 65 plus in the middle of the day. I asked if the officer’s car was equipped with mobile, automatic tag readers on the trunk. He said, no, not exactly. So I asked was it a stationary reader. By his vague response I could see that that may in fact be the case. I asked another officer, unrelated to the case, whether stationary police tag readers exist and are they in this county. He responded, “Of course.”

So I did my own research and discovered that stationary tag readers are everywhere. These can be attached to traffic and sign poles. As this example shows, they can be a great crime fighting tool. However, like other modern technologies, such as DNA analysis, geofencing, Facebook, etc, stationary tag readers can be a real threat to privacy. Multiple cameras, in sequence and shared across police departments, can track a car’s travels and determine driving habits over time. The Electronic Frontier Foundation points out that the government’s ability to automatically track where you drive to can chill protected First Amendment activity of people who visit sensitive areas such as clinics, gun stores, political protests, or immigrant and religious meetings.

I realize now that I was recently benignly tracked and tagged by a stationary tag reading system. In this case it worked great for me. I drove through Maryland and Delaware a few weeks ago. To avoid I -95 traffic through Baltimore, Waze had me drive a long detour north through Annapolis to Wilmington. The sign said Delaware Highway 301 is an an EZPass toll road. So I was prepared to stop and pay tolls. But, strangely, there weren’t any for whole 40 or so miles. A couple of weeks later I received a letter from the Delaware Toll Authority. I figured it must be a fine and wondered if I blew past a toll booth and didn’t realize it. But how can that be? I learned that that toll system is completely automated. I did nothing wrong. Delaware sent me a photo of my car and tag, thanked me for my business, and said that the toll is $3.50 for non EZPass holders. The toll is a little less if you have an EZPass.