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Automated Plate Readers Let Police Collect Millions of Records On Drivers 276

schwit1 writes with a report on just how extensive always-on license plate logging has gotten. The article focuses on California; how different is your state? "In San Diego, 13 federal and local law enforcement agencies have compiled more than 36 million license-plate scans in a regional database since 2010 with the help of federal homeland security grants. The San Diego Association of Governments maintains the database. Unlike the Northern California database, which retains the data for between one and two years, the San Diego system retains license-plate information indefinitely. Can we get plate with code to delete the database?"
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Automated Plate Readers Let Police Collect Millions of Records On Drivers

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  • by clickclickdrone ( 964164 ) on Thursday June 27, 2013 @11:44AM (#44122495)
    The police set up vans with cameras that scan the number plates of all the cars that go down the street that day, cross ref for road tax, MOT and/or insurance and send out automated fines if any aren't in order.
    • Great, the UK is becoming a panopticon state even faster than the US. As an American, I'm not petty enough to welcome the company.

      • Great, the UK is becoming a panopticon state even faster than the US.

        The original Panopticon was a British prison []. The system there worked because prisoners couldn't know if they were being watched, unlike the ANPR cameras the parent mentioned, which - like speed cameras - are always preceded by a sign to let you know they're there.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Panopticon is also a metaphor used by Michael Foucalt to highlight the way in which a society can discipline and punish itself. Technological advancements have granted the State an enormous amount of power, "where no bars, chains, and heavy locks are necessary for domination any more." By the way, no true Bentham Panopticon prison design has ever been created.

      • by Frobnicator ( 565869 ) on Thursday June 27, 2013 @01:19PM (#44123703) Journal

        Great, the UK is becoming a panopticon state even faster than the US. As an American, I'm not petty enough to welcome the company.

        You got it backwards.

        The UK entered the mass-surveillance business back before WW1. Pax Brittania meant they could monitor the world with impunity, just like the US does now. Mass surveillance of British citizens entered the public knowledge around WW1, so the government made the GCCS (Government Code and Cypher School) public after the war. It was later named the GCHQ, which is the functional equivalent to the NSA in the United States. Thanks to the CCTV cameras every five meters it is still the most surveilled nation --- the US is not alone in monitoring every phone call.

        US mass-surveillance came a bit later, but WW2 saw the industry boom. It entered public knowledge after WW2, which is about the time the NSA was formed. The "Five Eyes" program during World War 2 expanded government surveillance to the global scale. The five nations (UK, US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) are still working together to ensure that when one country can't do the spying, another country will gladly step in and spy for them.

        The US joined the UK. Even though the US does an incredible amount of spying around the globe, the UK has been and continues to be the "leader" in homeland surveillance.

    • by perpenso ( 1613749 ) on Thursday June 27, 2013 @12:23PM (#44122955)
      I believe businesses are doing it too. Auto repossessors, bail bondsmen and others have mounted cameras on their cars to scan and record the license plates of vehicles around them and enter the data into a private central database that they all subscribe too. The driver receives an alert if a nearby license plate is tagged in the database. Previous location information is also available.

      If you have parked in Wal Mart parking lot a local auto repo guy has probably scanned you and you have been entered into the database.

      I believe the number of vehicles recovered using this technology is currently in the tens of thousands per year in the U.S.
    • by Gerzel ( 240421 )

      In many ways I attribute the trend towards panopticon and surveillance state and a matter of laziness and unprofessionalism among police forces.'

      A professional uses their knowledge to weigh the pros and cons of what they are doing for their client. It isn't just giving the customer what they ask for like some sort of service vending machine but actually listening to needs and desires and working to fulfill them for the client. This is a lot harder than simply doing what needs to be done to "get the job do

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Isn't the whole point of license plates that they are a publicly readable tag to identify your vehicle? the state's already have an entire department dedicated to tracking which plate is one what vehicle... its called the DMV... They all share this data with each other. I fail to see how this is a significant concern?

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

      by TheGratefulNet ( 143330 ) on Thursday June 27, 2013 @11:48AM (#44122531)

      we believe you: you probably DO fail to see why this is such a big deal.

      but it is. even if you don't get it.

      • by h4rr4r ( 612664 )

        If it is so simple, why not explain it to the whole class?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Gr8Apes ( 679165 )
      Because it's one thing to have an identification item on your car, it's another to track where you are when and store that data. It's no different than the NSA keeping tabs of everyone you know and when you talked to them. If that's not clear, please prep yourself for an anal implant that will collect all data on your person at all times, for the public record.
    • Because, unlike patents adding "with a computer" qualitatively changes the situation.
      Checks that used to be limited by manpower can be done on every plate that goes by, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
      And anybody, local PD, FBI, NSA, your insurance company, pissed off $cientologists, criminals staking out people to kidnap, crazy ex-girlfriends, can have the ability to do so.
      • The film version of A Scanner Darkly had cars with barcodes on plates instead of numbers, which were scanned at every intersection. Yes, the system was abused. Or utilized according to design, take your pick. And that 2006 film was set "7 years in the future."

        We'll stick with numbers though, for pedestrians' ease of ID. Helps to find your ride in the parking lot.

    • by Holi ( 250190 )

      Then you won't mind being tagged with a GPS chip so we can track your location at all times.

    • What right do they have to know where I go and when with my vehicle? None? It is one thing when someone takes down a suspicious vehicle's plate and reports it in, and a completely different to have a computer categorize all plates heading anywhere. All of the sudden everyone is suspicious.
    • Because the DMV doesn't know where you've been, or where you're heading.

      Park a plate-recorder van near the entrance/exit of the local gun show. One in the parking structure near a rally. A couple at select places of worship around town. You get the idea.

      Now cross reference that data with border checkpoints, HOV lanes, and other public traffic cameras.

      Instant, no-effort, and of course infallible watch-list.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 27, 2013 @11:45AM (#44122509)

    There was a joke circling in Poland a couple years ago:
    worth a try ;)

  • Not news for UK (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    This is not really news for the UK, the UK police have ANPR automatic numberplate recognition, which they put on most major junctions and motorway on and off ramps.

    They revealed it a couple of years ago when somebody started shooting people and they tracked his location to the nearest town.

    All that has happened is car number plate cloning has become much more wide spread by criminals, the records are also kept forever.

  • Fractal pattern embedded within a set of bones? [] Now let us hope that the police do not understand regular expressions.

  • 36 million over two years is like watching a single freeway. If you want to track a single person, you're not likely to get a whole lot of useful data from that.............
    • 36 million over two years is like watching a single freeway. If you want to track a single person, you're not likely to get a whole lot of useful data from that.............

      36 million total scans, not scans of 36 million individual plates.

  • Data Lifecycle (Score:5, Insightful)

    by onyxruby ( 118189 ) <<ten.tsacmoc> <ta> <yburxyno>> on Thursday June 27, 2013 @12:08PM (#44122779)

    The thing that people need to think about is that data is an asset. Like any asset it has a date of acquisition, a period of usefulness and a time that it should be removed from service. Just like you would have a retention policy for your corporate email or payroll records, you should have a retention policy for all other data.

    The key is to define the lifecycle of your data ahead of time - before there are any legal actions against it and within legal compliance requirements. Once you have defined your requirements and useful period of retention you need to purge it and destroy all backups - all as a matter of policy. As long as this is your normal course of business your butt is covered in court.

    Government owned data like license plate data should be treated the same way. Since it is publicly owned data the public should have a say in how long it is retained. My suggestion is to simply define a policy with a very short retention period. Normal data would be kept for a week and data that matches up to a criminal investigation (stolen car etc) could be retained per legal requirements.

    The balance of the thing between big brother / police state and a bonafide crime fighting tool (these things are really good at catching stolen cars for example) is to define your data retention policy as short as possible and zealously enforce it.

  • by benjfowler ( 239527 ) on Thursday June 27, 2013 @12:12PM (#44122821)

    As others have mentioned, they've had ANPRs in the UK for quite a while.

    The cops sit on the side of the road, and they check all passing cars for registration and tax. Then, some basic computation is done: if a plate is seen in two places, which is clearly impossible (e.g. the same plates popping up in distant towns five minutes apart), the plates are flagged as bad, and the police go and chase them.

    The idea being, people who break little laws, also tend to break big ones. E.g. a bunch of "poor and misunderstood Asians" who were on route to blow up an EDL rally only got caught, because they had a bad tax disc. The alternative doesn't really bear thinking about (large-scale civil disorder) -- and I'm glad they got caught.

    I'm sure the civil-liberties obsessives here would hate the idea of ubiquitous ANPR, but the practicality of the situation is that it works.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by CanHasDIY ( 1672858 )

      I'm sure the civil-liberties obsessives here would hate the idea of ubiquitous ANPR, but the practicality of the situation is that it works.

      Theoretically, rounding every non-government employed citizen up and sending them to the work camps and gas chambers "works" even more effectively...

    • The idea being, people who break little laws, also tend to break big ones.

      Yes. I've occasionally let my car's inspection sticker expire, so it's likely that I'm a terrorist. Please learn the difference between P(A|B) and P(B|A).

      a bunch of "poor and misunderstood Asians" who were on route to blow up an EDL rally only got caught, because they had a bad tax disc

      But the next time the terrorists might come on foot, so you should add mandatory pedestrian stops with the classic "papers please". They might also swim ashore so you should ensure that people carry their ID when swimming too.

  • the more companies who have a vested interested in surveillance and data mining, the greater the economic and political power of those with a vested interest in continuing and expanding these sorts of practices. It is not a good situation.
  • Y871 953"; drop table users; commit; select "
  • That allows me to press a button that:
    -Saves to a file the last minute of video recorded from my cellphone mounted to my dashboard.
    -Recognizes the license plate number of the idiot that just almost killed my family with their piece of shit pick-up truck.
    -Forwards both file and license plate number to the local authorities, who can then apply the appropriate penalty.

    Centrally controlled surveillance is dangerous, expensive, and inefficient. It must be limited in a democratic society. Decentralized,
    • by tukang ( 1209392 )

      Centrally controlled surveillance is dangerous, expensive, and inefficient. It must be limited in a democratic society. Decentralized, community based surveillance has great potential to improve overall quality of life, especially on public roads, where every idiot has a license to kill with their own stupidity.

      Yeah let's outsource surveillance to the community so that neighbors spy and tell on each other. That doesn't sound like a police state at all.

      His earlier thought returned to him; probably she was not actually a member of the Thought Police, but then it was precisely the amateur spy who was the greatest danger of all.

      • by Idou ( 572394 )
        Notice my use of the word "potential." Yeah, take it to the "peeping Tom" extreme and no one will disagree with having legal restrictions.

        However, public roadways are the other extreme. 30K people die a year in the U.S. from accidents. If you are driving on a public road, I am not sure if we, as a community, need to be prioritizing your privacy over the safety of the public (especially if you are driving like a moron).
  • There is a real danger in increasing this electric law.
    With governments with Complex and large legal systems combined with the fact that we are human, means most of us probably have broken some minor laws every day. To have a system that indiscriminately catches you, and in essence judges you and send you the fine in the mail. Comes close to the Orwellian 1984 world, but not so extreme.

  • by PPH ( 736903 ) on Thursday June 27, 2013 @12:38PM (#44123161)

    ... is already equipped with countermeasures.

    The plates are covered with mud and the entrails of small animals.

  • Since this is already about cars, I guess it's time for an internet analogy.

    Plates are like IP addresses. They cannot be used to identify a specific computer (car) let alone a specific user (driver).

    • there is no RFC allowing for a change in the plate while in operation, as there is for an IP address. the soft IP was very useful in the life of things like VAXes because of all the licenses tied to the MAC address. so when our net card died at the school, DEC just added a line to the startup script with comments to soft-IP the machine to the old hard address.

      used to be in the old days, the cops could spot a fake plate from ten lengths away. now that almost all stamped plates have been replaced with prin

  • I have said before we should be massively over or under exposing these images. Most states have gone to newer style plates that are higher contrast in the IR spectrum and have easier to OCR letters and numbers for this reason. I have been saying we need some high output IR LEDs to illuminate the license plate or the area around it so it either massively over or under exposes the plate to become unreadable by machine. If you are dumping out enough power (No idea what it would take so if others can venture a
    • In most jurisdictions it is illegal to deliberately obscure a license plate in any way. Flooding the area with IR would probably constitute obscuring. The fact that the IR light's only use is to make the plate unreadable by scanner points toward deliberate obscuring.

    • If the sensors don't already blow up when used in the daytime, I doubt you have an IR emitter that rivals the sun.

  • Can we get plate with code to delete [] the database?"

    Coincidentally, the alt text for that xkcd image is: "Her daughter is named Help I'm trapped in a driver's license factory."

  • by Registered Coward v2 ( 447531 ) on Thursday June 27, 2013 @12:49PM (#44123315)

    of the data than the collection. I know, if you don't collect you don't have the problem but then again I like the idea that if my car is stolen I have a better chance of getting it back; or if break-ins occur in my neighborhood the police may be able to identify some suspects. Oh yeah, and think of the children. Once you start getting the data on plates and their geo location; it becomes relatively trivial to cross reference that with commercial databases and tag / license data to develop a more complete picture of someone's habits. That is potentially valuable information to private companies; how soon is it before the government decides to make the database pay for itself by selling the data? saving the taxpayer's money and all that.

    Of course, the first time a politician's habit of visiting certain "shoppes" or the address of some young lovely who is not their partner gets into the news, with pictures, we may see more interest in privacy; just as video rental records became important when they were used against a supreme court nominee.

  • The NFL player Arron Hernandez was just arrested and charged with murder based primarily on texts, surveillance video (some from his own home) and cell tower records. There are also corroborating witnesses who heard shots and found shell casings, but they were only contacted after the digital evidence was examined. Assuming he actually did what they say he did - shot a friend execution-style for making him "nervous" - I think his case presents a fairly strong argument as to why such pervasive record keepi

    • The NFL player Arron Hernandez was just arrested and charged with murder based primarily on texts, surveillance video (some from his own home) and cell tower records.

      The question is how many serious crimes are solved this way that couldn't have been solved otherwise. You can find an anecdote to justify anything, but it means nothing.

    • The evidence isn't all in yet, but I've also had a VERY strong suspicion some kind of surveillance was ongoing; sanctioned or not. Too much information conveniently turned up too quickly. Really, how the HELL did they find that gun that had been discarded off the side of the road into a bunch of trees?

    • by anagama ( 611277 )

      The flip side of this is that a person could be very convincingly set up with a fake plate, a "borrowed" cell phone, and a few forged texts. At that point, your life hangs in the balance of that casino we game we call a jury trial.

  • Stories like this have come out previously but maybe this time it will get traction as it is happening in a big important city in CA. The city of Minneapolis MN has tried to get the data they have been collecting classified as non public data [] for a while now and this legislative session it was made private []. This is the article that broke the story [] but doesn't mention how long Minneapolis had been doing it but the neighboring city of St. Paul has been doing it since 2008. At the time of the article Minneapol
  • I guarantee that once these become standard, a police department will get the idea to use time differentials between scans to determine a minimum possible speed for the car, and send out automatic speeding tickets if that speed is over the amount posted. Within a few years, everyone will do this.

  • by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Thursday June 27, 2013 @01:09PM (#44123565) Homepage

    OK, so every single law enforcement officer and government official in the country needs to have everything they do on duty recorded, logged, and made public.

    If they are going to constantly watch us, they also need to be watched. Their privacy is now irrelevant, as they have decided ours is too. Since they have decided they will collect and store this information without our consent, they sure as hell have no leg to stand on to claim that monitoring them invades their privacy unless we somehow believe they have more rights than we do.

    We no longer give a shit about what they want, and quite frankly, we can't trust them any more than we trust the least trustworthy of them -- and I see no reason to give them the benefit of the doubt.

    I can almost guarantee they don't have nearly enough access controls on this -- so you can pretty much assume the cops are accessing this to look up their wives, exes, and friends and other things they have no business using it for.

    I think people should take the opportunity to film and record every police officer they see. Put them under constant surveillance. Post it online. Make it publicly available. Then they'll whine and say how unfair it all is, and the collective response should be "if it's OK for you to do it, it's OK for us".

  • Uncle arrested (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Just this week on Tuesday my Uncle was arrested because of these auto-plate scanners in Minnesota. In this situation he does not have a license and was driving his mothers car. The scanner showed that the owner of the vehicle had a immediate relative with a revoked license, and when he saw it wasn't a little old lady driving he pulled them over.

  • this is why I constantly swerve from lane to lane, so those cameras can never get a proper focus
  • by WOOFYGOOFY ( 1334993 ) on Thursday June 27, 2013 @01:14PM (#44123637)

    All these databases are used as evidence during criminal investigations... this one... the NSA one etc. etc..

    Any political operative with read / write access to these databases can fabricate evidence as they see fit. And it's not just theoretical : []

    If you believe, as I do (and even if you don't ) , that we can't do law enforcement without databases like this, then I submit we have an engineering challenge here.

    We need stores of data which are designed to be "evidential" or "purely factual" in nature and once an entry is written, it can't be changed at a later time to have another value. I am using the word database here but I am pretty sure it's more like a "store" .

    Is there a one way, write-once technology which is provably tamper proof? Can one be designed?

    The scenario I am trying to prevent is the most obvious one where a malefactor, at some possibly distant date after information about their target has been recorded, attempts to change that information to produce a perception or suspicion or even proof of "guilt".

    It's not just a theoretical worry. It's not much different than what the Texas legislature attempted to do with its own record yesterday. Seen in a certain way, they attempted to "frame" Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, as having not begun her filibuster in time.

    This is benign compared to what a Dick Cheney or Richard Pearle or Donald Rumsfeld type could / would do with some career analysts' whereabouts, phone records etc. etc. who displeased them ala Valerie Plame. Sure, Scooter Libby went to jail for the crime, but I think we all know who he was protecting.

    It's not even slightly far fetched and the consequences couldn't be more corrosive to democracy. In fact, just the potential for this kind of manipulation could under the right circumstances lead to a widespread loss of faith in all law enforcement on the part of the general public. That itself is unacceptably corrosive and dangerous to the republic.

    So how do we solve this problem so it can't be "unsolved" by some domestic Axis Of Evil ? A running, recorded one way hash on the totality of input seems unworkable , but I am not an expert.....

    • Is there a one way, write-once technology which is provably tamper proof? Can one be designed?

      Save simultaneously to multiple, external, independently controlled locations. If the data is not private there should be no problem with allowing 3rd parties access for truly independent record keeping. If the data is private you could still upload encrypted copies to 3rd parties on a defined, regular basis, to be unencrypted only by court order.

      • Yeah I agree something like this. An independent auditor . It';s not even necessary for the auditor to have access tot he semantics, just the hash. Can these hashes be defeated? This is expert territory, at least more expert than me.

        As far as entering false information, sure but there are issues with that involving contradicting other parts of reality that make it hard. It's hard (I think) to isolate a certain part of reality away from every other part so you can manipulate it without creating a contradic

  • I really don't see a problem with this. I mean, I can actually reason this as being used to find "bad guys". This is very different from the NSA bullshit program which you don't have to be a conspiracy nut to know is being used for totally different reasons than we are being told.

    • Ok, lets make a simple example. Lets say that one of the governments primary duties was to demolish abandon houses. This was expensive, hiring crews, hauling away the rubble. So, the government secretly started placing C4 in every new home built and linking these homes up to a computer. When a home was declared abandon my the computer it would flag the home for human review. The human would verify that it was abandon and then the computer would detonate the house. BOOM... no more house, the lot could be sol

  • by H310iSe ( 249662 ) on Thursday June 27, 2013 @01:38PM (#44123931)
    I just read recently, and I have not confirmed this from a second source yet, that the plate readers rely on infrared at night. This is *not* how speedcameras like the ones used in toll booths work but it does make sense the on-board cameras might work this way. Privacy can be improved by adding some IR lights to your licence plate lights. This will blow out the image unless they have image processing on the camera dedicated to dealing with this kind of thing. You will need some decent IR to be effective, some experimentation will be needed to find out how many lumens are needed, but I'm pretty sure it's achievable with modern IR LEDs. In daylight their IR filters will be down and this will be completely ineffective, you can point a 1 watt IR LED directly at a camera with an IR filter and it won't bother it in the least.
  • by guttentag ( 313541 ) on Thursday June 27, 2013 @02:09PM (#44124313) Journal
    And all this time I thought Californians who leave 0.1 seconds of following distance beween their car and the one in front were just stupid. Turns out they were trying to avoid having their plates scanned.

The IQ of the group is the lowest IQ of a member of the group divided by the number of people in the group.