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"Mobile Plate Hunter" Cameras Raise Questions 580

The Washington Post has a story on "Minority Report"-style license-plate scanners that mount on police cars. They are the size of softballs, cost $25K, and can scan and run thousands of plates a day through the local Motor Vehicle Administration database. The easy mission creep these devices encourage is summarized in the article: "Initially purchased to find stolen cars, a handful of so-called tag readers are in use across the Washington region to catch not just car thieves, but also drivers who neglected or failed their emissions inspections or let their insurance policies lapse. The District and Prince George's County use them to enforce parking rules... 'I just think it makes us a lot more effective and a lot more efficient in how our time is being used,' [a senior detective] said." The article doesn't mention what happens to the data on legal plates. Suppose the DHS decides it wants a permanent archive of who was where, when?
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"Mobile Plate Hunter" Cameras Raise Questions

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  • The UK says (Score:2, Informative)

    by sa1lnr ( 669048 ) on Saturday August 02, 2008 @08:51PM (#24451965)

    Welcome to the party. We've been here a while and are sure you will get into the swing of it. ;)

  • by Iphtashu Fitz ( 263795 ) on Saturday August 02, 2008 @09:02PM (#24452021)

    You most likely can't. But the police can. They have access to that sort of data. Mostly they have databases containing the license plates of known stolen cars, etc. Since many police cars now have laptop computers in them it's an easy enough process for a police department to upload a database of known stolen car license plates to each officers car, then let the cameras do their thing. As the cop is driving down a street the laptop just pops up an alert if he passes a car with the plate.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 02, 2008 @09:03PM (#24452025)

    For one, you need to get some help, and for two, www.publicdata.com.

  • Re:Poor analysis (Score:5, Informative)

    by MightyYar ( 622222 ) on Saturday August 02, 2008 @09:24PM (#24452153)

    I have a problem related to this.

    I lived in PA until recently. Once I, oh the horrors, changed insurance companies... You know what the knuckleheads at PennDOT did? They sent me a letter telling me that my insurance had lapsed, and demanding that I send them proof of insurance or face castration (or maybe it was just a fine).

    I looked into it, and found out that EVERY SINGLE PERSON in PA who changes their insurance gets this letter. Why? The jackasses in Harrisburg passed a law that demanded the insurance companies notify the government when someone drops insurance, but did not write into the law that they need to notify the government when someone BUYS coverage. I mean, holy shit... only politicians can be so dense. I wrote a letter much more politely phrased than this post and got the expected blow-off from my state representatives.

    So if PA ever adopts this policy of scanning for dropped insurance, they will end up pulling over anyone who has recently SWITCHED insurance and is unlucky enough to be in view of a trooper. Groovy, what a country.

  • Re:It's misnamed (Score:3, Informative)

    by kunwon1 ( 795332 ) * <dave.j.moore@gmail.com> on Saturday August 02, 2008 @09:27PM (#24452177) Homepage
    Just because they don't have insurance doesn't mean they can't compensate you. How many times a day does correlation v causation have to be covered on slashdot?
  • Re:It's misnamed (Score:5, Informative)

    by cayenne8 ( 626475 ) on Saturday August 02, 2008 @09:33PM (#24452227) Homepage Journal
    "Just put a film over the plate that blocks visibility from above but not from a straight on view..."

    Well, there are products out there that profess to do that, but, on Mythbusters...they showed that they didn't work...


  • by plasmacutter ( 901737 ) on Saturday August 02, 2008 @09:41PM (#24452281)

    I live in the southeast. Do you think i'm stupid enough to trust just my mirrors when changing lanes?

    I actually turned and looked, with my own eyeballs, and nothing was there.

    Every car has a blind spot, but american cars lately have been getting really bad about it, and motorcycles are considerably smaller than most vehicles.

  • by Koby77 ( 992785 ) on Saturday August 02, 2008 @09:41PM (#24452289)

    It's a legal "grey area" known as "tag applied for".

    Want to be anonymous going someplace for the day? just get a random piece of cardboard, write a date about 3 weeks from now, and replace your plate with it.

    My friend tried this a few years back when his temporary tag got destroyed by a really bad rainstorm. He posted all the same information as on his temp tag on the cardboard. I rode with him as a passenger to see what would happen. We got pulled over by a group of 5 cop cars after 10 minutes, like we were some sort of terrorists. They let us go because everything was legit, but have no illusions that you will certainly attract MORE scrutiny, and LESS anonymity.

  • Re:Poor analysis (Score:3, Informative)

    by interiot ( 50685 ) on Saturday August 02, 2008 @09:50PM (#24452347) Homepage

    If license plate numbers didn't exist, you'd have WAAAY more people running from the cops.

    The absolute first thing a police officer does when they decide to pull you over is to take your license plate. THEN they turn their lightbar on. If you try to run after they take your license plate number, you're an idiot, because an "evading a police officer" charge will show up on your record, possibly including an arrest warrant, etc.

    However, if you run before they get your number (usually by turning into a residential area... sadly, I know a guy who likes to do this), then all they have to go on is a vehicle of make X and color Y. If they were going to pull you over for a more minor infraction, it often isn't worth it for them to spend more than 10-15 minutes looking for you.

  • Re:It's misnamed (Score:3, Informative)

    by xaxa ( 988988 ) on Saturday August 02, 2008 @09:50PM (#24452349)

    You should obviously look to the UK for this kind of product:
    http://www.ukspeedtraps.co.uk/argtec.htm [ukspeedtraps.co.uk]

    Also films, sprays, etc:
    http://www.google.co.uk/search?q=number+plate+speed+camera [google.co.uk]

    But it seems like a lot of effort to save a few seconds getting to work in the morning :-S

  • by nabsltd ( 1313397 ) on Saturday August 02, 2008 @09:51PM (#24452351)

    It is impossible to place your mirrors in such a way that a motorcycle is never in a blind spot.

    This is because they can accelerate so quickly that if you have your mirrors placed to eliminate the blind spot immediately to the left of your vehicle, your mirror shows you too much of the lane immediately to your left, and not enough of the lane to the left of that one.

    This moves the blind spot to slightly farther back in the lane immediately to your left, along with a largish one in the next lane over. For cars, this isn't a big deal, as either part of them will be outside the blind spot, or they won't be able to accelerate quickly enough to cause a problem if you move left a lane.

  • Re:It's misnamed (Score:3, Informative)

    by Forbman ( 794277 ) on Saturday August 02, 2008 @09:54PM (#24452377)

    and, just because they do have insurance doesn't mean that you will be compensated, either. Do you think your insurance company is not going to try and find some sort of out so that they don't have to pay you?

  • by westlake ( 615356 ) on Saturday August 02, 2008 @10:15PM (#24452487)
    The real mission creep isn't these cameras. It is the license plates themselves. License plates should never have been designed. Their only purpose was to be a loophole for "unreasonable searches" since they are in public view

    The history of the license plate:

    In The Hound of the Baskervilles [1902] by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are found unsuccessfully trying to catch a public hansom cab. Holmes, however, got close enough to the cab to spot its license number, which became a major clue in cracking the case.

    This is the reality:

    Deputy charged in assault on prostitute [signonsandiego.com], [Aug 1], Mom pleads for daughter's safe return [nbcsandiego.com] [Aug 1], Police say Sciota man tried to burn bar [mcall.com]

    You will find stories like these in every newspaper published in the last 100 years.

    The license plate is not going to go away and it will be read by the neighborhood watch and the highway patrolman.

    The policeman is first and last the successor to the watchman in the night. He needs to know who is out there. He needs to move quickly sometimes.

    Now back to our story:

    New York became the first state to require vehicle registration [1901] and California followed suit later that year. The first New York issues were homemade plates, bearing the initials of the owner without any numbers. Massachusetts was the first state to actually issue plates, beginning in 1903. By 1918, all 48 of the contiguous United States were issuing license plate. Although they were territories at the time, Alaska and Hawaii began issuing plates in 1921 and 1922.

    License plates have changed significantly over the years. Early plates were not fancy -- just the state name or abbreviation, a registration number, and, more often than not, the year. Fancy lettering, reflectorization, slogans, county names, illustrations or logos peculiar to a particular state became more common.

    Beginning in 1957, most types of North American plates have been a standard size, six by twelve inches. Prior to that, different sizes and shapes were not uncommon. Plates were normally rectangular, but oval, square, round, and triangular shapes were used. For a number of years, Kansas and Tennessee cut their plates to match the shaped of the state itself. The distinction for the most unusually shaped plates goes to Northwest Territories and Nunavut in Canada, which have their plates cut in the shape of a bear. Automobile License Plate Buying Guide [ebay.com]

  • by Iphtashu Fitz ( 263795 ) on Saturday August 02, 2008 @10:21PM (#24452515)

    Will someone please explain to me how operating a device I own, on infrastructure that I am required to pay for, is a privilege?

    You're driving on public roads, which means you have to obey all public laws, regulations, etc. Those laws stipulate that you must have a drivers license, carry insurance, have your car inspected, etc. If you're unwilling to accept those requirements then stay off the road.

    Of course if you don't want to abide by those laws you can always buy your own private roads and do whatever the hell you want on them.

  • Re:It's misnamed (Score:4, Informative)

    by nmb3000 ( 741169 ) <nmb3000@that-google-mail-site.com> on Saturday August 02, 2008 @10:43PM (#24452627) Journal

    Cameras see IR, eyes don't.

    Cameras also usually have filters over the lens to block out infra-red. IR sources are common enough that unless you _want_ to see it, you almost certainly _want_ to block it.

    I skimmed TFA and didn't see any mention, but unless these cameras depend on IR to function, putting IR LEDs around your plate won't do much.

  • by pentalive ( 449155 ) on Saturday August 02, 2008 @11:00PM (#24452745) Journal

    "Supermarket A" did this to "Supermarket B" a few years ago, sent someone over to write down all the plate numbers in the lot, then sent all the people "Supermarket A" fliers and coupons.

    (Names have been changes because I don't remember who Supermarket A or Supermarket B actually were)

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 02, 2008 @11:16PM (#24452855)

    Nowadays, peeking in databases is even considered one of the perks of being a police officer...

  • Re:It's misnamed (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 02, 2008 @11:16PM (#24452857)
    that and covering your license plate with anything is illegal in many states
  • Re:It's misnamed (Score:4, Informative)

    by tomz16 ( 992375 ) on Saturday August 02, 2008 @11:35PM (#24453007)
    Do NOT pass go... It's also easy to put a better IR filter on a camera...
  • Re:It's misnamed (Score:4, Informative)

    by XorNand ( 517466 ) * on Sunday August 03, 2008 @12:35AM (#24453309)
    I drove on expired plates for over a year and without car insurance for over three years. I certainly did not have any type of substance abuse problems; I simply could not afford it. At first I was unemployed and then I was struggling as a self-employed computer geek. While driving, I was paranoid most of the time, but that $150/mo. was *huge*. I spent less than that on food (ramen, eggs, and peanut butter) each month. Yes, it was foolish, but those are the choices I was faced with.

    Now that I've had a fulltime job for a couple of years, I carry auto insurance, renter's insurance, dental/vision/health, plus I even pay for supplemental AD&D coverage. If an ininsured motorist would hit me, I'd certainly be pissed, but I'd also empathize. Not everyone without insurance is a drunk/crackhead as you imply.
  • Re:It's misnamed (Score:4, Informative)

    by tomz16 ( 992375 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @12:43AM (#24453341)

    VERY good point. /me scratches head.

    Stronger LEDs?

    Nope... you can make dielectric thin film filters with some pretty bitchin extinctions...

    Can anyone think of a what to (ab)use the interlacing on a CCD? I'm thinking along the lines the way corduroy pants end up looking odd in digital pcs.

    Nope... good thought, but there's no way.

    Any transparent LCDs out there that could alter the image such as making a '0' into an '8'? Such a system could be disabled from inside the vehicle?

    Yes... of course... But nothing that would even be remotely legal... and, if you are going to blatantly ignore the law, then why not just use a marker, or completely attempt to forge/steal your plate?

    How about old-school? My jeep is stained w/ mud already, why not add some to the license plate? )Besides the laws prohibiting this naturally.

    Yeah... that will obviously work, but AFAIK obscuring your plate is a violation that can get you pulled over.

  • by clafortefeelingsoftw ( 921294 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @12:47AM (#24453343)
    My wife was arrested using one of these devices. The police in Montreal is testing this technology, they plan to install it on a hundred cars by the end of the year. After speaking with the police, it's clear that this technology won't affect real criminals, it will only catch honest people like my wife. I posted the story and technical details on my blog: http://www.enlighten3d.com/2008/08/03/a-computer-vision-system-arrested-my-wife/ [enlighten3d.com]

"Never face facts; if you do, you'll never get up in the morning." -- Marlo Thomas