Having the ability to track a car’s location using just its license plate number may seem like something out of a spy movie, but this technology actually exists and is available to everyday people. Being able to pinpoint the real-time or historical location of a vehicle can be extremely useful for a variety of reasons. Parents can keep tabs on their teen driver, car owners can track down a stolen vehicle, and suspicious spouses can get to the bottom of their partner’s whereabouts.
While license plate tracking technology does raise some privacy concerns, it can also provide valuable peace of mind and security when used appropriately. This guide will explore the different methods available for tracking a car by license plate, the technology that makes it possible, the potential use cases, and the privacy implications to consider.
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Overview of License Plate Tracking Technology
License plate recognition (LPR) technology combines high-speed cameras with optical character recognition (OCR) software to instantly read and record license plates on vehicles. Fixed LPR cameras are typically mounted on structures like traffic lights or highway overpasses. Mobile LPR cameras are installed on patrol cars and can quickly scan all license plates within view while driving.
As LPR cameras capture images of passing license plates, the plate numbers are converted into text data using OCR software. This data is then checked against various databases in real-time. For law enforcement, it is commonly compared to lists of wanted vehicles or unpaid violations. For commercial uses, data analytics can determine travel patterns and frequencies.
By collecting license plate data from LPR cameras in multiple locations, it is possible to trace the past or present whereabouts of a vehicle. Connecting the dots between LPR camera detections in different areas at certain times makes it feasible to track a vehicle’s location and route.
How Police Use License Plate Tracking
Law enforcement agencies have been utilizing LPR technology for many years to track down criminals, recover stolen vehicles, apprehend suspects with outstanding warrants, and solve past crimes. By quickly scanning all license plates within view, patrol officers can be automatically alerted when a plate of interest is detected.
Studies have shown that LPRs enable police to recover stolen cars much faster than traditional methods. In some cases, stolen cars have been recovered within just hours of being stolen thanks to instant LPR detection and tracking. Proponents argue this technology helps police work more efficiently and improves public safety.
However, there are concerns about privacy, data access, and potential misuse when police collect license plate data from the general public. Overall, the use of LPR by law enforcement remains controversial. While it provides advantages for catching criminals, some view it as overly invasive mass surveillance when used extensively.
Private License Plate Tracking Services
For regular citizens not involved in law enforcement, there are still options available to track a license plate number for valid personal reasons. Paid services like PlateSmart and PlateSearch provide both historical and real-time searches of vehicle locations using a national database of LPR data.
After entering a license plate number into one of these sites, you can view past locations where that vehicle was detected by LPR cameras, anytime from a few months to a few years prior depending on the database. For real-time tracking, some services charge a monthly fee to provide alerts and live location updates when the plate is newly scanned.
This private license plate tracking capability is made possible thanks to the vast networks of commercial LPR cameras that are installed nationwide. Major logistics companies use LPR technology to track delivery vehicles. Many repossession companies rely on mobile LPR cameras to find individuals with outstanding auto loan payments. And private parking operators install LPR smart cameras to efficiently manage parking access and payments in large lots.
As all these commercial entities collect troves of LPR data, some choose to sell or share that data to plate tracking services. However, the extent of access and breadth of coverage can vary across providers.
Potential Legitimate Uses
While the idea of tracking someone’s car location without their knowledge raises obvious concerns, there are some potentially legitimate uses for private citizens and businesses:
- Locating a stolen vehicle: Having the ability to pinpoint a stolen car’s location in real-time can greatly assist police with efficient recovery.
- Monitoring teen drivers: Parents could receive alerts when their teen driver goes somewhere off-limits or drives dangerously.
- Checking on elderly drivers: Caregivers can remotely monitor trips and driving habits of elderly clients to watch for signs of impairment.
- Verifying employee trips: Employers confirm service technicians complete assigned jobs without taking unauthorized detours.
- Tracking company fleets: Businesses monitor vehicle efficiency, safety, and accountability across a far-flung sales fleet.
- Investigating a cheating spouse: An individual may attempt to confirm suspicions about a partner’s whereabouts.
While the technology theoretically enables these applications, there are still complex legal and ethical questions surrounding access and privacy. The tracking must be justified, limited in scope, and consensual.
Privacy Concerns and Limitations
Despite legitimate uses, cheap easy access to live license plate tracking clearly risks abuse and invasive surveillance. Significant privacy advocates, including the ACLU, have raised objections about private companies amassing LPR data on the public and profiting from its sale.
However, plate tracking services point out there are still limitations in place:
- Data is anonymous apart from plate numbers and cannot identify who was driving.
- Historical data only provides past locations, not real-time tracking.
- Real-time tracking requires monthly subscriptions, not just a one-time lookup.
- Camera networks have gaps, do not capture every road at all times.
While tracking an individual vehicle’s every move does remain extremely difficult, the technology is advancing rapidly. Features like receiving mobile alerts when a plate is detected could make sustained tracking easier than ever.
There is also the potential for bad actors to abuse plate data. Stalkers or violent partners could secretly track victims. Plate data breaches could expose where people live, work, visit doctors, attend religious services, participate in protests, or visit romantic partners. These risks must be mitigated through thoughtful regulation and accountability around commercial license plate tracking practices.
Best Practices for Private Citizens
For parents, employers, and private citizens who do opt to use license plate tracking services, there are some best practices to follow:
- Only track vehicles you own or have permission to monitor, like teens or employees.
- Avoid continuous 24/7 tracking when possible. Utilize real-time alerts for high-priority events.
- Inform any drivers that they may be tracked in advance. Transparency is key.
- Get consent from teen drivers and explain it is for safety purposes.
- Have clear policies about when tracking data can be accessed and by whom.
- Define restricted locations that will trigger alerts if visited.
- Keep software updated and enable two-factor authentication.
- Report any data breaches or location tracking misuse to authorities.
Following basic principles of consent, limited use, security protections, and transparency can help ensure this powerful location tracking technology is not abused.
What Does the Future Hold?
As camera networks grow, optical character recognition improves, and smartphones proliferate, license plate tracking technology will likely spread. In the future, average citizens may have even morevenient access to real-time location data on any vehicle of interest.
While this could aid police and individuals with legitimate safety concerns, it also risks enabling stalking, harassment, and mass surveillance. Lawmakers are increasingly looking for ways to strike a fair balance.
One potential compromise could be applying data retention limits so historical tracking data does not persist indefinitely. Strict enforcement of authorized use cases without broad data sharing could also limit misuse. But advances will likely continue to outpace regulation.
In coming years, mandatory digital license plates may even broadcast plate numbers publicly, making driving more traceable than ever before. Privacy safeguards will be continually tested as the public benefits of location tracking compete against the risks of misuse. Finding the right equilibrium will remain an ongoing challenge.
Options If Your Car is Being Tracked
If you suddenly notice signs that an unknown individual or company is tracking your vehicle without authorization, take prompt action:
- File a police report about the unauthorized surveillance right away. Local law enforcement and the FBI investigate cases of illegal location tracking.
- Contact your car insurance provider in case the vehicle was equipped with aftermarket tracking technology without your knowledge. They can help identify and disable unauthorized devices.
- Run diagnostics tests on the vehicle’s on-board computer system to detect any tampering. An expert mechanic can assist with spotting hidden tracking bugs installed in the car.
- Check bank and credit card statements for any monthly subscription fees being paid to license plate tracking services by a spouse or other family member.
- Change driving routes and habits to break predictable patterns. Switch up frequented locations to send the tracker in different directions.
- Consider reporting the issue to the FTC if the tracking involves possible abuse of confidential license plate data. Regulators can penalize data misuse.
If you confirm someone is illegally having your car tracked without your permission, be sure to fully document all evidence and promptly escalate the matter to the relevant authorities. Serious charges can apply for unauthorized surveillance.
Track my car location by number plate? Yes! the ability to pinpoint a car’s location based just on its license plate number was once limited to law enforcement, but is now available to regular citizens through private tracking services. As camera networks expand and technology improves, this tracking capacity will only become more robust. There are clearly legitimate applications when used responsibly, but there is also potential for abuse. Finding the right balance between privacy, public safety, and innovation remains an ongoing challenge. For now, strict usage policies and informed consent help mitigate privacy risks. Overall, the spread of license plate tracking serves as a reminder that personal technology continues to outpace regulation. While the benefits can be substantial, individuals must stay vigilant to protect against intrusive surveillance tracking practices.