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The Rapid Rise of License Plate Readers 302

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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  • Re:privacy? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @10:21PM (#41005239)

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

  • really? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @10:24PM (#41005261) Journal

    Do you really have an expectation of privacy over the license plate hanging on your car bumper?

    Aren't license plates like the opposite of private?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @10:27PM (#41005281)
    The slippery slope is not real. Keep telling yourself that.
  • Re:privacy? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @10:32PM (#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:really? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pegasustonans ( 589396 ) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @10:34PM (#41005353)

    Do you really have an expectation of privacy over the license plate hanging on your car bumper?

    Aren't license plates like the opposite of private?

    How about very specific knowledge of where you're going and when? Because, that's what we're really talking about here.

  • Re:really? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by cheekyjohnson ( 1873388 ) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @10:36PM (#41005367)

    It's quite different when the government is using technology to automatically record everything. Just like someone seeing you walking down the sidewalk is different than you being recorded by cameras everywhere you go.

    Private, public, it really doesn't matter. The citizens (in theory, at least) control the government, and they should be able to stop them from trying this nonsense.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @10:41PM (#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

  • Re:really? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by TubeSteak ( 669689 ) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @10:42PM (#41005443) Journal

    In the past, limited law enforcement resources prevented the cops from taking pictures of everyone and everything at every moment of the day.
    Society's basic expectations of privacy and the laws that followed, are based upon this assumption that you could not be tracked at every second.

    Not "would not be track," but "could not be tracked."
    As a result, the police are operating in a grey zone.
    What they're doing may be legal, but only because the law did not anticipate this.

  • Re:privacy? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @10:56PM (#41005611)

    Nope. Public is public. Don't like having a license plate? Don't own a car.

    Says an Anonymous Coward...

  • by cheekyjohnson ( 1873388 ) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @11:06PM (#41005713)

    A few people taking pictures here and there is an order of magnitude different than a single organization recording everything nearly everywhere. And since citizens can (theoretically) control the government, we definitely can stop nonsense like this, and still be allowed to take pictures in public ourselves.

  • Re:privacy? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SydShamino ( 547793 ) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @11:23PM (#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.

  • Re:really? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @11:59PM (#41006083) Journal

    I think we're way beyond that at this point. We don't control the government anymore...if we ever did.

    There's a post just a couple above yours from a guy who's municipality had a referendum to get rid of some of this surveillance stuff and it passed and the cameras are gone.

    Yes, you control your government if you're willing to exercise that control. You can even have a significant impact on the political system, simply by showing up at a local party committee meeting and speaking up. It takes time and will, which most people don't have.

    And it means ignoring advertising and all political media for a while, and being very mindful of what corporations you give your money to, which is harder work than most people are willing to do.

  • by bussdriver ( 620565 ) on Thursday August 16, 2012 @12:30AM (#41006283)

    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.

  • by TubeSteak ( 669689 ) on Thursday August 16, 2012 @12:31AM (#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.

  • by dgatwood ( 11270 ) on Thursday August 16, 2012 @12:37AM (#41006343) Homepage Journal

    Since that could be done without warrant, this is obviously perfectly fine, and not even worth thinking about.

    All that tells us is that legally, it isn't an technically an invasion of privacy, per se. However, the potential for abuse is almost unlimited, and as such, it is not something the government (or any private party, either) should ever be allowed to do—not for privacy reasons, but because it gives the government nearly unlimited power over the people. As Jefferson once put it, "A government afraid of its citizens is a democracy; citizens afraid of government is tyranny."

    The big thing you're missing is that the public would never authorize the expenditure for such a colossal waste of resources if this were done with humans, which means that although that could theoretically be done, it can't happen in practice. One reason the public would never authorize it is that it would be one very large step towards the panopticon, towards the world of Big Brother, etc. It would massively creep out the public to see twenty police officers on every street corner, to the point that everyone would feel constantly afraid for their freedom—afraid to say or do anything, for fear that they might accidentally cross some line and get arrested. That is the essence of totalitarianism.

    Cameras on every corner are really no different from officers on every corner. What makes them far more dangerous is that they are less daunting psychologically—less likely to cause the public to realize the risk they pose—yet the totalitarian threat they represent is exactly the same. This means that they represent a way for government to take enormous strides towards increasing its power over the people without the public ever noticing. Nothing could be more dangerous to democracy and freedom. Not all the tin-pot dictators in the world, not the corrupt politicians in the pockets of big business, not terrorists, not whatever country we're ostensibly at military war or cold war with. Nothing.

    The nature of government is to march determinedly towards totalitarianism. In a free society, it is the public's greatest responsibility to periodically push them back with such vigor that they are forced to retreat to a more balanced position. This is potentially a very large step towards totalitarianism. It is, therefore, the public's supreme duty, in the face of such an overstep, to slap the government's hand and say, "No. Bad government. No cookie." As it is oft said, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 16, 2012 @12:48AM (#41006431)

    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.

  • Re:privacy? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Thursday August 16, 2012 @12:54AM (#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.

  • by mjwx ( 966435 ) on Thursday August 16, 2012 @03:52AM (#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.

  • Re:privacy? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Thursday August 16, 2012 @09:10AM (#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 boristdog ( 133725 ) on Thursday August 16, 2012 @10:52AM (#41011121)

    I just had Jury Duty this week. Simple criminal case, I wasn't picked for the jury.

    But the chatter in the halls by the other potential jurors was scary:
    "Well, he wouldn't be up there if he wasn't guilty."
    "Someone that age should know better than to steal!"
    "He looks guilty as hell."

    So do YOU want to be put in front of these "peers" of yours?

I've noticed several design suggestions in your code.