License Plate Readers, DNA Databases, a Camera on Every Corner, and a Microphone in Every Home

Our rights are being eroded and we don’t even know it,” Rutherford said. “Privacy, freedom, the things that are most important to Americans and South Carolinians.

Two bills introduced in the SC legislature this year would ban or restrict law enforcement’s use of cell site simulators and automatic license plate readers. The bills probably will not pass – why not?

Law enforcement tends to get what they want, for one thing. The other thing is that most people don’t have a clue what cell site simulators or automatic license plate readers are or the extent to which they are invading our privacy.

Law enforcement is making use of new technologies that invade our homes, our travel, our personal information, and even our genetic makeup. A war is being fought – right now as you read this blog post – for the privacy rights of Americans, and we are losing.

Why are we losing?

Many people on the law enforcement side of the debate feel that investigations are more important than individual privacy concerns. It’s a legitimate position for many who fall on the safety end of the continuum between safety and privacy.

Other citizens just don’t care. They will blindly follow their government, trusting that everything the government does will benefit them.

But many other people just don’t realize the implications – we are headed toward a total loss of all privacy, Constitution notwithstanding, and most people just don’t see it.

Imagine: License plate readers on every corner, surveillance cameras on every sidewalk, every person’s DNA neatly catalogued, and a microphone in every home. If that doesn’t sound like something you would be okay with, you should know that we are almost there

License Plate Readers in SC

Many towns and cities in SC are now equipped with automatic license plate readers on overpasses, bridges, lampposts, and other locations. You can find them mounted on many police cars in SC as well. What are they?

They are taking pictures of every car that passes, recording the license plate number, and recording the date and time that the vehicle passed the camera. That information then goes into a database…

Some of the license plate readers are also recording video. 24/7.

In Myrtle Beach, like other towns in SC, every vehicle entering or leaving the city is photographed, tag number recorded, and filed away in the database.

In Folly Beach, license plate readers and cameras have been installed that track every vehicle entering or leaving the town.

We don’t have complete information on all cameras and license plate readers in SC, but it is safe to say that, at least if you are in a town or city, you are being watched, recorded, and catalogued.

Why are License Plate Readers Good for Law Enforcement?

If a person is wanted, or if their vehicle has been flagged, law enforcement is notified when they drive past a camera and possibly a crime is solved.

If a crime has just happened – murder, armed robbery, sexual assault – police may be able to identify the suspect and apprehend them before they get too far. Like most technologies that invade privacy, it’s a wonderful law enforcement tool.

Why are License Plate Readers Bad for Everyone?

If I’ve got nothing to hide, why do I care?

License plate readers, cameras, smart phones, and cell towers, collectively, now track, record, and compile databases of the whereabouts (and, therefore, the activities) of every American.

Law enforcement, other government agencies, and any corporations that are given access can now surveil every American. Or, they can identify specific Americans to target for surveillance based on political affiliation, religion, nationality, race, or membership in perfectly legal organizations.

Use of license plate readers and surveillance footage, combined with cell tower data, DNA databases, and other sources of information, now provide a means for the government and select corporations to discover and monitor not only your location but every detail of your private life.

But wait, that wouldn’t be constitutional, would it? If you trust the government and the corporations who are compiling the data not to abuse this goldmine of data….

Does the Government Have Access to DNA Databases?

Across the country, people who are convicted of crimes – and, in some cases, people who are simply accused of crimes – are forced to provide DNA samples that are added to CODIS. CODIS has been an invaluable resource for crime-solving when a suspect’s DNA is available. What if the perpetrator has never been arrested and their DNA is not in CODIS?

Millions of Americans, and people from all over the world, have now submitted samples of their DNA to private companies for analysis. For the most part, these are people who want to know their ancestry – they are not volunteering to make it easier for the government to track them or for corporations to market to them.

But to governments and corporations, these DNA databases are pure gold. Governments will have access to the databases, if they don’t just take them over at some point. It’s also a gold mine for targeted marketing – which means that corporations flush with cash are also going to buy access to your information.

Law enforcement has been using public genealogy sites to solve crimes – like the Golden State Killer in California. Now, the largest private DNA testing company, Family Tree DNA, has revealed that they are working with law enforcement to solve crimes and that they have given the FBI access to their database, allowing them to connect you – or your relatives – with DNA samples taken from crime scenes.

Alexa, Smart Phones, Surveillance Cameras, and Cell Towers

Surveillance cameras, license plate readers, and DNA databases are only a part of the potential data collection that is available to law enforcement and corporations. What are some of the others?

Home Security Systems and Surveillance Cameras

Do you have security cameras in your home or business? Does a security company or law enforcement have the ability to access your system remotely?

How many surveillance cameras do you think are watching within a one-mile radius of your home? Do you feel safer knowing that someone somewhere is watching your every move?

Cell Tower Data

With a valid search warrant or subpoena, law enforcement can obtain a “cell tower dump” that allows them to identify all calls or texts made by a phone in the vicinity of a cell tower and the time that the call or text was made. What if there’s no probable cause to get a cell tower dump?

Now, police can use a “cell-site simulator” to collect and compile information on every phone and its location in a particular geographic area. Not just the suspect they are targeting – every phone.

Are SC police using cell-site simulators? We don’t know, but you can bet police are not foregoing the use of valuable data collection tools, at least not until the courts tell them No.

Smart Phones

Is your cellphone recording you? Google, Facebook, and other companies may or may not be actively “listening” and even recording your conversations for purposes of targeted marketing. The capability is there, and you can bet if money is to be made big corporations will be there raking in the dollars. You can also bet that, eventually, law enforcement will find a way to use it.


Amazon Alexa is listening and recording you as well, and use of these recordings has been reported in some high-profile criminal cases recently.

Alexa and other “smart” technologies in the home can provide a wealth of information for corporate marketing and for law enforcement investigations – if they are not being proactively utilized already (I suspect they are), it is just a matter of time.

Criminal Defense Lawyer in Charleston, SC

Charleston, SC criminal defense attorney Grant B. Smaldone represents people charged with crimes in SC state and federal courts. If you have been charged with a crime or are under investigation, call now at (843) 808-2100 or send a message to schedule a free consultation.