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The Rapid Rise of License Plate Readers 302

Posted by samzenpus
from the eye-in-the-sky dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Today, tens of thousands of license plate readers (LPRs) are being used by law enforcement agencies all over the country—practically every week, local media around the country report on some LPR expansion. But the system's unchecked and largely unmonitored use raises significant privacy concerns. License plates, dates, times, and locations of all cars seen are kept in law enforcement databases for months or even years at a time. In the worst case, the New York State Police keeps all of its LPR data indefinitely. No universal standard governs how long data can or should be retained."
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The Rapid Rise of License Plate Readers

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  • I thought we past thinking we had any privacy left.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Your license plate is always showing. I don't understand how anyone can claim it's private.

      • Re:privacy? (Score:4, Funny)

        by binarylarry (1338699) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @09:23PM (#41005255)

        I think we need to attach infrared camera "discouragement" to the back of our cars.

        • And law enforcement will just outlaw such 'discouragement' if they don't already and write you up when they see it...
          • Re:privacy? (Score:4, Interesting)

            by lister king of smeg (2481612) on Thursday August 16, 2012 @12:58AM (#41006863)

            license plates have light for illumination so they can be read. those light just might some how start imitating more energy in the IR part of the spectrum than before.

            • by xenobyte (446878)

              license plates have light for illumination so they can be read. those light just might some how start imitating more energy in the IR part of the spectrum than before.

              As far as I know there are rules requiring certain lights on a car, and often also ban certain lights that can cause misunderstandings or similar, but lights that emit invisible light cannot cause any problems as they are - invisible. I cannot see how a ring of strong infrared lights around a license plate can be a problem as this light is completely invisible to humans. That most cameras doesn't filter it out isn't a problem traffic-wise; but recordings and pictures may be useless due to light flooding.

              I'v

      • Re:privacy? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @09:32PM (#41005321) Journal

        Your license plate is always showing. I don't understand how anyone can claim it's private.

        I don't know why we need to go through this every damn time; but here goes:

        Tracking and correlation. Yes, obviously, a license plate is visible, and passers-by have always been able to see them. However, without a network of passers-by observing license plates on every corner, and chattering amongst themselves about which ones are seen where, when, that means almost nothing. Only the most overtly memorable and/or suspicious license plate would merit accurate memory of time/place, much less multiple time/place recordings allowing for inferences about travel.

        With automation and machine vision, highly accurate recording and correlation across fairly broad areas, in space and time, becomes relatively easy and cheap.

        Surely this difference is obvious?

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by BradleyUffner (103496)

          I don't know why we need to go through this every damn time; but here goes:

          We have to go over it "every damn time" because people keep saying that publicly visible things are somehow privacy invasions. Once people stop claiming that then people will stop correcting them.

          • People view the tracking part as an invasion of privacy. Consider the ubiquity of cameras and facial recognition (and other bio-metrics). If the argument is that license plates are public and therefore tracking them is not a public invasion does the same argument apply when technology makes it possible to know and store everything you do when you step outside?
            • is not a public invasion

              is not a privacy invasion.

          • Re:privacy? (Score:5, Insightful)

            by SydShamino (547793) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @10:23PM (#41005875)

            Most of our laws are written around the fact that we are humans. For example, there are pretty severe laws about pouring certain chemicals into the ground, but very different laws about pouring clean water into the ground, because as humans certain chemicals could greatly poison the ground and groundwater, while pouring water into the ground is only unlawful when it's a waste of clean water in a drought. If human physiology were different, these laws would be different.

            The laws and customs related to public privacy are all based around the concept that humans have poor memories, which are often forgotten in moments, and are most certainly forgotten in days, months, and years, and are absolutely forgotten upon in about a century. Moreover, any "memories" which are more durable require extensive human time and effort to produce and catalog - something which is very expensive and thus limited.

            Our laws and customs were designed taking this into account. Now, after however many centuries of development of our laws and customs, in the last five years we have means to augment fundamental human nature. Those that only understand the letter of the laws and customs written long ago see this as changing nothing, for they view the letters in a vacuum and ignore human nature. Those that understand the spirit of the laws and customs understand that they were established for a given time and place, and if the circumstances change the laws and customs should as well.

            • by Kjella (173770)

              Those resources may be limited, but from an individual's point of view they might not be. A famous celebrity may find that there are paparazzis following her all the time, the police can be following a suspected mafia boss almost constantly. People can hire private investigators to follow their SO around because they suspect they're sleeping with somebody else, no celebrity status or criminal activity required. Hell, if you avoid harassing them and turning into a stalker you can probably do it yourself. If

              • Celebrities are defined as public figures. I think the concept of public figures exists to separate those "more memorable" people from the private citizenry. Even then, though, as with your private investigator and police/mafia suggestions, creation and cataloging of those memories are time-consuming and thus expensive, and they are rarely retroactive.

        • It means they can ( and will ) track people that visit other people or places or meetings that they classify as "subversive" - like political parties they dissagree with. Like people organizing labor. Like people who are members of pro-pot groups. Socialists. Anti-totalitarianists... SUBVERSIVE TYPES LIKE YOU......

        • Re:privacy? (Score:5, Interesting)

          by slazzy (864185) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @10:32PM (#41005935) Homepage
          Check out my new paint job: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr38/189121025/lightbox/ [flickr.com]
        • by pepty (1976012)

          Your license plate is always showing. I don't understand how anyone can claim it's private.

          With automation and machine vision, highly accurate recording and correlation across fairly broad areas, in space and time, becomes relatively easy and cheap.

          Surely this difference is obvious?

          On the other hand unmarked police cars have been able to follow your car wherever it goes without a warrant, and that was not considered a privacy violation. While it would be unusual to think you're being followed by the police, it wouldn't be considered to be contravening your rights or your expectations of privacy. Traditionally the expectation of privacy has been about what, when, and where the state can observe as opposed to the level of convenience a method affords. What precedents would you consider

          • Re:privacy? (Score:5, Insightful)

            by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @11:54PM (#41006467) Journal

            I would say that there are two issues that don't get consciously acknowledged enough; but that are assumed when a 'what, when, and where' style privacy expectation is formed...

            The first is ubiquity(which is almost identical to cost, over a modest time horizon). Being shadowed by a cop, say, costs nontrivial money. I don't have an absolute protection against being shadowed; but I do have a reasonable expectation that I would only be followed if there were some reason to go to the trouble(an analogous case might be the assorted awkwardness that facebook photo-tagging has spawned: Obviously, I can't claim to have any privacy right to the visible fact that I showed up at a party; but, historically, my presence there would likely only be remembered by my friends, or if I were a celebrity, or if I did a naked kegstand. Now, even the most tedious attendees are recorded in trivially searchable form).

            The second is inference: With more advanced technology, you can gain new insights from old data. The hunting-grow-ops-with-FLIRcams cases are a good example: Do you have a privacy right to the outside of your house? Umm, it's outside and visible from the street... How about the inside? Now, with new imaging technology, I can draw strong inferences about the inside of your house just by looking at the outside. Once the fancy terahertz stuff gets cheaper and more compact, this should get even more dramatic. In these cases, new technology means that information in which I don't have a privacy interest can now be, with some clever math, turned into information that I do have a privacy interest in. This presents a bit of a problem.

          • Re:privacy? (Score:5, Interesting)

            by gnasher719 (869701) on Thursday August 16, 2012 @04:15AM (#41007919)

            On the other hand unmarked police cars have been able to follow your car wherever it goes without a warrant, and that was not considered a privacy violation.

            Without a warrant, but not without a police-related reason.

            In the UK, there was a court case that explained that very well: A police officer claimed to be injured and collected pay without working, but his employer (the police) didn't quite believe him, so they watched his home to see if he was as badly injured as he claimed. He wasn't, it ended up in court, and there was the question whether the police was allowed to do what they did.

            Result: While your employer is allowed to check whether you leave your home when you claim you are too sick to work, the police isn't. They have powers/rights that normal people and companies don't have, and with those rights come obligations, so they can't just watch you. However, in this case the police was actually the employer, and as an employer, they can do what other employers can do.

        • Exactly, and it sets a horrible precedent. Anything public becomes legally trackable. Your face is always showing. So you can't claim that is private, ergo there's no problem with facial recognition software recognizing and tracking everyplace you go. Suddenly everywhere I go, in a car, on foot, has been noted and recorded. That is the future we are inviting if we do not push back.
      • by dbet (1607261)
        No one is claiming your license plate is private. It's the tracking and storing of data that's a concern.

        Similarly, no one is claiming the heat escaping your house is private, but you still need a warrant to use an infrared camera to "see" inside someone's house. Even though the camera works by seeing what *leaves* the house.
      • Yes but it used to be that you had to physically see it for it to be of any use.

        E.g. Police are looking for a stolen car with the plate ABC - 1234
        Or you are pulled over and they run your plate to double check.

        It was never there so police could track where you have gone for the last 5 years.

      • by Targon (17348)

        Being able to identify someone with a license plate is not the problem, but when does recognition become monitoring a tracking the movements of individuals? Would you want the police to be monitoring your every move all the time, even if you are not doing anything illegal? This is the issue, the "keeping records" part needs to go away. Make it so any license plates scanned are removed from the system after 30 minutes, unless a ticket is given, and it should again be deleted if there is no reason to

      • Re:privacy? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Hatta (162192) on Thursday August 16, 2012 @08:10AM (#41009401) Journal

        So you would be OK with the entire contents of this database being made public? So not just the police, but your boss or your ex-girlfriend being able to look up your location whenever they want?

        No? That's not OK? Well now that we've established that it's reasonable to feel uncomfortable with some public data being known by some members of the public, can you understand why I'd feel uncomfortable with the police having that information?

        If it's truly public, it should be available to anyone and everyone. If it's not truly public, the police should have to get a warrant before they access it.

  • by Tony Isaac (1301187) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @09:38PM (#41005399) Homepage

    Every Android device is constantly tracked by Google. You can see this on Google Maps...check out the accuracy and detail of the traffic overlay. Apple does the same thing with iPhones. Both companies comply willingly with law enforcement requests for tracking data. So not only can they read your plate, but they can tell who is in the car with you, where you go, and where you stay.

    Is all this information good, or bad? YES! This information can be used to bring about justice, or it can be grossly abused.

    • by 7-Vodka (195504) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @11:37PM (#41006339) Journal
      Hey you know what's good for justice? If we embed video cameras in your eyes and microphones in your ears and record everything on the CLOUD.

      That way, if you ever break any laws, no matter how unjust they may be, we can make sure you are justly punished.

      Of course why would you have anything to fear if you're innocent? Are you hiding something? Think of the CHILDREN. We have to DO SOMETHING about all this crime.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @09:41PM (#41005425)

    How about we make a bunch of signs that are pictures of different license plates, and place them randomly about town? Swap them out every few days, and change the plates, and soon the cops DB will be full of bad data.

    Or pull a Little Bobby Tables, and have an image of a plate that ends in an SQL injection

  • Today's reading club will be focusing on a little gem in the same vein as the ever popular 50 Shades of Grease:
    IB6 UB9

    Mmmm, that it's made by a convict is all the more racy!

  • Er, didn't we just cover this on /. ?

    Minneapolis Police Catalog License Plates and Location Data
    http://yro.slashdot.org/firehose.pl?op=view&type=story&sid=12/08/11/0024218 [slashdot.org]

  • by characterZer0 (138196) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @10:39PM (#41005973)

    As a resident of NYS, the highest taxed state in the country, the expense of this is far more upsetting to me than the privacy implications.

  • by GoodNewsJimDotCom (2244874) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @10:42PM (#41005991)
    Hello, I see a *lot* of negative privacy concerns on this post, but I see it differently. I've felt for over a decade the police should have license plate scanners. Then when they tie it into a database of stolen cars, or cars used in recent untried crimes, it would come up as a positive, and the cop could pull the car over.

    Isn't there any love for police here being able to do their job more effectively? Every civilized nation needs a police force. So even if you don't like the current government, a new government still would need police. We should therefore help our police to be empowered to solve the crimes they're commonly tackling.
    • by TubeSteak (669689) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @11:31PM (#41006291) Journal

      Isn't there any love for police here being able to do their job more effectively?

      The police should have just enough resources to do their job.
      So to find stolen cars or cars used in recent crimes, do you need a license plate database stretching back 1 week? 6 months? 2 years? 10 years?

      The problem isn't the police doing their job more effectively, it's the lack of limits on the information they are gathering to do their job.

    • I've felt for over a decade the police should have license plate scanners. Then when they tie it into a database of stolen cars, or cars used in recent untried crimes, it would come up as a positive, and the cop could pull the car over.

      I don't see a problem with that, either. Real-time scanning and correlation automates the lookups they are already doing. The problem is when the cops build up a database of all license plates instead of just "hot" vehicles. Persistent storage enables chilling new "resea

    • Sure, one wants the police to have good tools. The thing is, these tools should only be used in genuine criminal cases.

      How about this:

      - The license plate scanners are great, they run all the time, scanning every plate they see.

      - The data on the plate (this car was here at this time) only if the plate is in a list of accepted cases. Otherwise the data is immediately discarded

      - A plate can only be placed in the list if the car has been reported as stolen, or if a judge has issued a warrant.

      - Plates may only r

    • by mjwx (966435) on Thursday August 16, 2012 @02:52AM (#41007483)

      Isn't there any love for police here being able to do their job more effectively?

      No there isn't and there is a very simple reason for this.

      People who regularly break traffic laws will have to stop complaining about the police and start taking responsibility for breaking the traffic laws. This is unconscionable to the speeder, tailgater, weaver and lane hog. Their inability to drive within the rules is so clearly not their fault, it must be "revenue raising" or some such and they should for no reason drive within the speed limit, at a safe distance nor exercise proper lane discipline. Worse yet, it would mean they would have to admit their ability to drive is somewhat less than perfect, again this is so wrong it cannot even be considered.

  • by guttentag (313541) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @11:05PM (#41006139) Journal
    From TFA:

    As a result of this rapid expansion of private monitoring, the company recently won a $25,000 contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to provide a database that would help locate "fugitive aliens."

    I don't get it. What does an agency whose primary mandate is to shut down Web sites and seize domain names need LPR data for? Are people driving server farms around in trucks?

  • by stox (131684) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @11:10PM (#41006169) Homepage

    That may not be as crazy at it sounds.

  • by Jeremi (14640) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @11:18PM (#41006213) Homepage

    I see two common responses to this:

    1) This technology will lead to a loss of privacy and abuses by police, therefore it should be stopped

    or

    2) This technology will enable police to find and catch criminals more quickly and effectively, therefore it should be allowed.

    The truth is, both reactions are correct -- but the issue is typically presented as a tradeoff: we can have our privacy OR better law enforcement, but not both.

    But what fun is that? I want both. And since we are all clever Bagginses here on Slashdot, perhaps someone can think of an LPR system that would allow police to track down criminals quickly, and yet still by highly resistant to privacy loss or abuse. I recognize that such a design is non-trivial, but in a world where people come up with clever systems such as BitCoin, I don't think it's necessarily impossible either. It just takes some serious thought, and getting past the "ooh, new technology is scary" stage.

    • They can require a great many things of you for being allowed to drive on the public road system. Car insurance for example; you don't have to buy it but then you do not have to drive.

      You could be required to have unique IDs on your car for easy identification (aka license plates) and you have no recourse unless you get a huge number of voters together to change that requirement.

      If you do not want to be tracked, you will have to use another means of transportation - you have the right to primitive mobility

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        The government is not your mom. The government is simply a collection of falliable people just like me. Who gave them the right to say what is a right and what isn't?

        Trotting out this nonsense that driving is a "privilege" when it's one that nearly everyone has and is just about required to be a functional adult in many places is simply stupid.

    • perhaps someone can think of an LPR system that would allow police to track down criminals quickly, and yet still by highly resistant to privacy loss or abuse.

      And who would control this system? Who would fund all this? The government is what comes to mind. I hardly trust them with anything as it is...

      It just takes some serious thought, and getting past the "ooh, new technology is scary" stage.

      The problem isn't that the new technology is scary; the problem is how it's being used.

      They use the same justifications for organizations like the TSA. "Some people are criminals, so everyone must accept a loss of freedom in exchange for what is quite possibly just security theater." They seem to be quite adept at punishing everyone for the actions of a few.

  • by Osgeld (1900440) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @11:36PM (#41006335)

    Your navigating thousands of pounds of metal at high speed with a UUID at least on one end of it, if not two

    who would want to keep an eye on that? Fuck I get annoyed by the same GFD hillbilly who is doing 100+ in a 1992 chevy truck with 6 inch pipes sticking out of the back of the cab 2 foot above the roofline every single day. I know their vehicle, shit I even know their license plate, whats the difference if I report it or a camera does?

    Yea I am being tracked as well, but theres this thing called an if statement ... if (driver == asshole) flag; else break

  • overblown (Score:3, Interesting)

    by slashmydots (2189826) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @11:38PM (#41006357)
    My license plate is out there for the world to see. So what? So is my face and my fingerprints. Big freaking deal. People could track people centuries ago, they're just faster now.
  • by Alex Belits (437) * on Thursday August 16, 2012 @12:33AM (#41006729) Homepage

    Because every American citizen has a Gawd-given right to run over pedestrians anonymously. Unless those pedestrians are a group of iPhone-carrying hipsters.

  • by Viol8 (599362) on Thursday August 16, 2012 @04:34AM (#41008009)

    Almost everywhere you go in britain now (certainly in big cities) you see ANPR cameras slung up above the road. Sure, it has helped catch a few criminals but at what cost to personal privacy? You could argue that no one should be allowed curtains in their house because that way the police could see any crimes being committed such as burglary or rape. But I can't see many people going along with that. The current generation of politicians and police commanders just can't see the road to hell they're leading us down.

  • by tommeke100 (755660) on Thursday August 16, 2012 @05:29AM (#41008237)
    These systems will be abused more often than they will be useful. I know what you did last night!
    A famous person committed suicide some years ago here. Police stats showed that her 'police record' was accessed a couple of thousand times by cops that had nothing to do with the case.
    They abuse the system to check upon there new neighbor, the daughters bf and the likes.
    A centralized system detecting licence plates will now be used to check upon the wife and kids more often than the original intent.
    It's just one big google for them.
  • by bugs2squash (1132591) on Thursday August 16, 2012 @10:53AM (#41012081)

    I always imagine that these tools, and it seems there are more of them each day, will lead to complacency, the evidence seems so very compelling when it comes from such a fancy system. However, one day someone will game the system; maybe the villain just bolted his license plates onto the back of some unsuspecting stooge's car, or had a second set of plates, or even put out a dozen sets of duplicate plates, or put different plates on the front and the back of the car or do any number of things that simply makes the system unreliable.

    Then the system will wind up providing an alibi for someone we would all have rather seen in gaol and its veracity will go unchallenged because it is so whiz-bang.

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