A new technology is helping law enforcement fight crime, but it may also compromise drivers’ privacy.

Automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) are being used throughout Texas. They have high-speed cameras that automatically photograph each car’s license plate and location that drives past the readers.

In turn, law enforcement can use that information to help locate stolen vehicles, missing children, witnesses of crimes, or the subjects of criminal investigations or arrest warrants.

“Law enforcement agencies throughout the nation and around the world are increasingly adopting [ALRP] systems to enhance their enforcement and investigative capabilities, expand their collection of relevant data, and expedite the tedious and time-consuming process of comparing vehicle license plates with lists of stolen, wanted, and other vehicles of interest,” said the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Motor vehicle thefts are especially prevalent in Dallas, where a police shortage of around 1,000 officers has left residents and visitors vulnerable. According to the City of Dallas crime analytics dashboard, there have been 7,441 offenses committed so far this year as of June 21.

The Dallas City Council only budgeted the Dallas Police Department $654 million this fiscal year, forcing it to make do with less taxpayer money than law enforcement agencies in other high-crime jurisdictions like Los Angeles and New York.

A commonly used ALPR system is Flock Safety, which creates a detailed file of the color, make, and model of each passing car, as well as bumper stickers. This information can then be shared with police all across the nation.

In January of 2023, a Flock camera helped identify the suspect in a shooting near Houston that resulted in the death of a school teacher. Sugar Land police told KHOU 11 that the information about car descriptions and license plates collected by the Flock camera ultimately helped them track down the shooting suspect when all they had was a vehicle description.

How long ALPRs hold onto data depends on the location. Byron Schirmbeck, who lives in Baytown, told The Texan that while Baytown promises to retain the data for only 30 days, there are no legal limitations.

“The contract indicates that Flock can ‘archive’ the collected data indefinitely and use it for any purpose they choose,” Schirmbeck said.

Although ALPRs like Flock help solve crime, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called mass-surveillance systems like Flock “worrisome.”

In a 13-page report, the ACLU detailed the security problems that come along with such technology.

The report claims that Flock does not plan to stick to ALPR cameras but wants to expand to traditional surveillance cameras accessible by the general public. Additionally, Flock created The Raven, an audio analytics service. The ACLU said it is questionable how reliable and effective such technologies can be.

“Mass surveillance systems have long been feared by people who value open, democratic societies, and for good reason,” said the ACLU.

“The ability to access a record of all our activities — even if just when we’re in public spaces — conveys the power to learn an enormous amount about our social, political, sexual, medical, and religious lives. Mass surveillance simply gives too much power to those who control it. Such power lends itself too easily to abuse, chilling people who might want to protest those in power or otherwise exercise their freedom of expression, and generally casting a pall over people’s freedom to live their lives without being watched.”

Flock cameras are used in more than 5,000 jurisdictions across the nation, according to The Texan. Not only are they used in law enforcement, but they have been installed by schools, colleges, and neighborhoods.

In April, the Dallas Police Department asked residents with security cameras to install Fusus, a technology similar to Flock that creates a digital database for officers to view archived video from the cameras.

The initiative resulted in similar concerns, as reported by The Dallas Express. DPD assured residents that the camera registry is only accessible by the police department, and owners will be contacted if law enforcement ever wishes to view their footage.

The public safety initiative was first enacted in Arlington. Connect Arlington was launched on January 22, and within just a day or so, 285 cameras were registered with the program, while 195 more were integrated with the Fusus device.