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State lawmakers will likely revisit license plate readers next month

Flock Safety

Privacy advocates are worried about a new wave of license plate readers deployed across Virginia.

The license plate on your car may soon be a data point followed by 73 local police departments and sheriff's offices, a dozen colleges and universities plus two dozen homeowners associations and civic associations. Critics worry this technology might be used to investigate what store you shop at, what political rallies you’re attending and even what doctors you’re visiting.

"There’s states and attorneys general in other states that are wanting to prosecute women for going out of state to access reproductive healthcare," says Shawn Weneta at the ACLU. "And this is another way for them to track people that are accessing abortion care out of state."

The company installing all these license plate readers at fixed locations across Virginia is called Flock Safety. Josh Thomas is vice president of the company, and he says fixed-location license plate readers would not be able to track movements of individuals for abortions.

"Cities actually own the data, not Flock Safety. So, we can't share it. We don't sell it. It's not about monetizing data," Thomas says. "It's about providing real public safety needs."

This is an issue that’s certain to come up again next year, as Flock Safety wants the General Assembly to allow license plate readers on state highways and federal interstates.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Updated: December 11, 2023 at 1:23 PM EST
Editor's Note: Additional context was added to Josh Thomas' response.
Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.