They're on city streets, county highways and attached to patrol vehicles: automated license plate readers. They're cameras that the law can use to put the bad guys behind bars. But are they invading your privacy?
FOX10 News Investigates began looking into license plate readers after a tip that some recent car chases could have been the result of license plate readers being able to spot criminals on the go.
No officials would confirm that, still FOX10 News Investigates kept looking into the crime fighting tool and discovered whether you're a criminal, or just a parent taking your kid to school, law enforcement across the Gulf Coast, could be recording your license plate.
"They watch out for all tags," Jackson County, Mississippi Sheriff Mike Ezell said about license plate readers.
They're cameras, attached to a pole on the interstate, a traffic light, or a deputy's car for example. They record your license plate number while you drive. Sheriff Ezell said they immediately notify his department about stolen cars, wanted people or missing people.
Ezell said, "We can monitor the traffic on the interstate and we get alerts from other agencies, particularly a tag in a vehicle, stolen vehicles. They are instrumental in helping us locate a possible kidnapped child or a senior adult."
From the Moss Point exit to the Alabama State line, it's about seven miles. FOX10 News Investigates counted five license plate readers along the way, but we didn't see any on the interstate in Mobile County.
FOX10 News Investigates asked the Mobile County Sheriff's Office about the technology and a spokesperson said the department has no comment, however, the Alabama Department of Transportation or ALDOT, confirmed that the sheriff’s office and border patrol have to get permits when they install the cameras on I-10 and I-65.
FOX10 News Investigates asked random law enforcement agencies near our area if they use them.
The Orange Beach, Gulf Shores, Bay Minette and Fairhope Police Department's said they don't. Neither do Alabama State Troopers. Florida Highway Patrol said they did use license plate readers, but they became too pricey to keep them updated, so they stopped.
The Birmingham Police Department said it's tested the readers before and is looking at ways of implementing it into their daily crime fighting efforts. Along with Jackson County Deputy's, license plate readers are also being used in Baldwin County.
The Baldwin County Sheriff's Office doesn't put cameras on roadways, but Chief Deputy, Anthony Lowery, said, "We have two license plate readers attached to vehicles."
They're not cheap though. "They can run up thousands of dollars to $50,000," Lowery said.
Despite their ability to catch criminal suspects, the Alabama branch of the American Civil Liberties Union or ACLU, believes the readers pose a greater danger.
Alabama ACLU Executive Director, Randall Marshall said, "We see almost on a daily basis, data breaches across this country where these mass e-files of literally millions of credit card information records...there’s no reason to believe that this information is any more secure than the things that get breached a virtually every day.”
Sheriff Ezell said his department only keeps the information recorded for 60 days and then it's all deleted. They also purchase the devices through the government and not a private company.
"We learned that using a private source, there might be some information shared on there and so we don’t use anybody that could potentially sell information," Ezell said.
In Alabama, there are currently no laws or statutes regulating law enforcement's use of the devices and the ACLU said that's the major problem.
"There is no regulations around the use of the license plate reader and the storage of the data from license plate readers and the ability nowadays to fundamentally track anybody or everybody you want through the use of this technology," Marshall said.
If you ask Alabama residents, some don't like their tags being recorded but most don't mind.
One man said, “They have it already. When I register my car they have it so no, I don’t object to that. I think that’s ok. I’m for anything that enforces the laws."
Another man said, "I don’t like people scanning my information without me being aware of it."
And another person said, "It’s really a good idea because the police cannot be everywhere at one time."
Currently, 16 states have statues in place that regulate how license plate readers can be used by law enforcement and how the information collected is to be kept safe from distribution. For instance, in Florida, license plate information can't be obtained from a public records request.