The National Highway Transportation Safety Association (NHTSA) is supposed to be focused on one thing: safety. For crying out loud, it's right in the middle of its cumbersome name. But the federal funding it hands out to state and local governments is being used for surveillance devices with no discernible "safety" purpose: automatic license plate readers.
The NHTSA is funding license plate readers for highway safety purposes only, but it’s far from clear how law enforcement agencies are interpreting this and whether they are using the funding to buy license plate readers for non-safety uses. The NHTSA should not be funding police technology for surveillance purposes and it should not let law enforcement apply for funding to decrease traffic fatalities and then turn around and use those funds to track people not suspected of any crime.
This is how things are supposed to run versus how things actually run. This funding dodge is pretty much indiscernible from law enforcement agencies obtaining DHS/DoD grants for Stingrays and Bearcats to combat "terrorism," and then using the equipment to do banal, routine policework
, like tracking down drug dealers.
So, in the name of "safety," local agencies are asking for federal funding, and then using the subsidization to deploy new surveillance tech. Standard operating procedure. And the companies manufacturing this equipment clearly recognize these exploitable funding opportunities and target prospective purchasers accordingly.
Private license plate reader manufacturers have further facilitated NHTSA granting funds for license plate reader systems by connecting state and local law enforcement agencies with the funding streams. In one 2012 email exchange, an employee of an ALPR maker advises
the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles that “NHTSA funding is available for traffic safety” and provides contact information. Indeed, the company has a whole page
of its website devoted to connecting law enforcement agencies with sources of funding.
In essence, the companies are telling agencies this equipment is pretty much free. And it is, as long as you don't think too hard about the original source of the funding: taxpayers. Exploiting this federal funding allows agencies to claim safety is a priority while not actually moving towards that goal. Instead, they get the location tracking technology they want and allow the public to pick up the tab. Then this equipment is turned around and pointed at the same people paying for it, sometimes literally as a tool of tax collection
And it looks as if this broken, abused system will only get worse. The ACLU reports the NHTSA is soliciting bids for a study into the use of license plate readers to improve driver safety. That this obviously arrives well after NHTSA funds have been used to purchase plate readers is already problematic. Beyond that, any conclusions drawn from the report will simply provide law enforcement agencies with handy citations to use when requesting funding for equipment they have no interest in using for "public safety" reasons.