Since the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last month, Americas extensive surveillance state could soon be turned against those seeking abortions or providing abortion care.

Currently, nine states have almost entirely banned abortion, and more are expected to follow suit. Many Republican lawmakers in these states are discussing the possibility of preventing people from traveling across state lines to obtain an abortion. If such plans are enacted and withstand legal scrutiny, one of the key technologies that could be deployed to track people trying to cross state lines is automated license plate readers (ALPRs). Theyre employed heavily by police forces across the US, but theyre also used by private actors.

ALPRs are cameras that are mounted on street poles, overpasses, and elsewhere that can identify and capture license plate numbers on passing cars for the purpose of issuing speeding tickets and tolls, locating stolen cars, and more. State and local police maintain databases of captured license plates and frequently use those databases in criminal investigations.


The police have access to not only license plate data collected by their own ALPRs but also data gathered by private companies. Firms like Flock Safety and Motorola Solutions have their own networks of ALPRs that are mounted to the vehicles of private companies and organizations they work with, such as car repossession outfits. Flock, for instance, claims its collecting license plate data in roughly 1,500 cities and can capture data from over a billion vehicles every month.

They have fleets of cars that have ALPRs on them that just suck up data. They sell that to various clients, including repo firms and government agencies. They also sell them to police departments, says Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU. Its a giant, nationwide mass surveillance system. That obviously has serious implications should interstate travel become part of forced-birth enforcement.

Neither Flock Safety nor Motorola Solutions responded to requests for comment prior to publication.

Stanley says that ALPRs are more concentrated in metropolitan areas, but theyre also common in rural areas. If someone is traveling out of state to get an abortion, police could likely repeatedly identify where their license plate was scanned during the trip and the times it was scanned. With that information, they may be able to sketch out that persons travel patterns. Police dont need a warrant to obtain this information because license plates are out in the open and can be seen by anyone, which is not necessarily the case when the police want to obtain someones location data from their phone or use another tracking method.

The more densely situated ALPR scanners are, the more they come to resemble GPS tracking, Stanley says.

Once the person seeking an abortion has left the state, a police department could look for license plate data in another state through the private databases, or they could obtain this data via a police department in that state. Police departments around the country regularly share ALPR data with each other, and the data is often shared with little oversight.