License plate readers: How much personal data does your license plate reveal?

, Fla. — Tracking millions of cars and collecting mountains of data. That’s what license plate readers spread across Central Florida are doing -- tracking just about everywhere you go.


But who is looking at all that data? And what could it be used for? 9 Investigates took a look to see what your data is being used for.

There are thousands of cars are on the roads in Central Florida every day and just about everywhere you go, cameras are watching and recording, including those license plate readers.

They are becoming more common not only on the roads, but also where you shop and even where you live. Their purpose is to help law enforcement.

Melbourne police Detective Christopher Thomas said they are a valuable tool.

“Whether that’s a drive by shooting, whether that’s a homicide, whether that’s organized retail crime, it’s certainly a nice tool that we have,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to get.”

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But many worry what else they might be used for.

Before we can get to that, we must first take a look at how many times your data is collected.

To figure that out, we had the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office run the license plate to one of our cars.

The system showed 132 photographs from various cameras over a 30-day period, each being added to a database.

Many of the readers belong to a company called Flock Safety.

The company’s cameras are used in 47 states, including Florida.

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“Technology -- funded by both the city and the law enforcement but also private entities -- is providing that force multiplier that many agencies really need,” said Holly Berlin, a company spokeswoman. “The second thing is there’s a call for better policing. And technology like license plate recognition, cameras, gunshot detection systems -- they provide that objective evidence that actually has an actionable lead that detectives can use to follow up and hopefully solve a case.”

9 Investigates asked several agencies in Central Florida to disclose how many crimes were solved by the readers, but we were told they do not really track crime like that.

But Flock Safety said its data shows it is helping solve 9% of crimes in the United States.

At this time, Flock Safety’s software does not use facial recognition or measure speed, but it does create a “vehicle fingerprint,” which includes a vehicle’s license plate, make and color. It even includes bumper stickers.

The readers capture 1 billion vehicles a month.

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In 2022, the American Civil Liberties Union warned that flock is building a mass surveillance system “unlike any seen before in American life.”

But Berlin said that is untrue.

“It’s owned by the customer, so we don’t own it,” she said. “We simply store it, and therefore we can never sell it or share it with any private third parties. And it’s deleted ... by default every 30 days automatically.”

But what happens after that?

Once law enforcement collects the data, it’s up to the agency on how long it keeps that information.

Randy Nelson, a law enforcement expert, said license plate readers should raise privacy concerns, describing it a “slippery slope.”

He said that the community needs to be involved in the discussion on how that information is used.

But law enforcement maintains that it’s only using the technology to stop crime.

Some states have rules on how long the data can be stored. Florida’s rules are looser than others.

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Shannon Butler

Shannon Butler, WFTV.com

Shannon joined the Eyewitness News team in 2013.

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