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Public Records Request Returns 4.6M License Plate Scans From Oakland PD 113

schwit1 points out a report from Ars Technica on how they used a public records request to acquire an entire License Plate Reader dataset from the Oakland Police Department. The dataset includes 4.6 million total reads from 1.1 million unique plates. They built a custom visualization tool to demonstrate how this data could be abused. "For instance, during a meeting with an Oakland city council member, Ars was able to accurately guess the block where the council member lives after less than a minute of research using his license plate data. Similarly, while "working" at an Oakland bar mere blocks from Oakland police headquarters, we ran a plate from a car parked in the bar's driveway through our tool. The plate had been read 48 times over two years in two small clusters: one near the bar and a much larger cluster 24 blocks north in a residential area—likely the driver's home." Though the Oakland PD has periodically deleted data to free up space — the 4.6 million records were strewn across 18 different Excel spreadsheets with hundreds of thousands of lines each — there is no formal retention limit.
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Public Records Request Returns 4.6M License Plate Scans From Oakland PD

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  • leads to rendition. how long can you hold your breath?
  • If you have a drivers license, the cops already have your address - they don't need to guess. There are still too many people driving around with expired plates and no insurance.

    • Excellant point. The question to me is how long do you retain the data? At some point where does the potential value of having the record cease to exceed the potential damage from privacy concerns?
      • Maybe we should re-examine our assumption of "potential damage from privacy concerns." What damage, really? Most people get so worried that their darkest secrets will be revealed. In an age when alcoholic crack-smoking politicians get re-elected (Rob Ford comes to mind), nobody really cares what you do, as long as you're not hurting yourself.

        Case in point - a decade ago one of our federal politicians was asked if she smoked weed. Her answer? "Hell, yes. And I inhaled." Nobody cares. It's getting VERY hard

        • Celebrities deal with what the majority thinks. Everyone else has to deal with the people around them, whose beliefs and actions can significantly deviate from the public at large. For a regular person, your sexual preference or religion (just to name two examples) can still invite prejudice and violence in some areas of the country.

          Given how quickly and severely those prejudices can change, I would just assume keep my privacy. Just look at the reaction to those following Islam pre- and post-9/11. While

          • Celebrities deal with what the majority thinks. Everyone else has to deal with the people around them, whose beliefs and actions can significantly deviate from the public at large. For a regular person, your sexual preference or religion (just to name two examples) can still invite prejudice and violence in some areas of the country.

            Of course, but it's better to stand up and be counted than to be on your knees in shame. Otherwise, you've given your tacit approval to being mistreated. Act like you're ashamed of who or what you are, and people will use that against you, same as in a schoolyard where the kids always know who's the easiest one to pick on.

            Just look at the reaction to those following Islam pre- and post-9/11

            Here it's been pretty muted, except for some idiots who think that anyone who isn't white and doesn't follow their views is a non-person.

    • You don't need a license plate reader to discover vehicles with expired registration or that are uninsured. The insurance companies already report to the DMV, as required by state law. And the DMV really does know who has been renewing registration or at least filing the proper PNO forms (planned non-operation), because they've fined me on being late in the past and threatened to suspend my driver's license if I didn't sort it out by their deadline.

      • You still need the license plate reader to catch the people without valid license plates. Sending a notice to their (probably former) address won't do anything.

  • All this information could also be legally found out by following a person around.
    • by bwwatr ( 3520289 ) on Tuesday March 24, 2015 @08:58PM (#49332531)
      This is a common, but flawed, response to many types of privacy invasion. The thing is, scale matters. The aggregation of lots of data that could otherwise only be had by exerting effort (following someone, staking out a home, etc.) reduces the level of effort required to infringe someone's privacy, and greatly increases the chances that someone's privacy will be infringed. This is why forcing cops to get warrants is considered a good part of the justice system, while the mass "perusal" of aggregated information is considered bad (for privacy).
      • This is a common, but flawed, response to many types of privacy invasion. The thing is, scale matters. The aggregation of lots of data that could otherwise only be had by exerting effort (following someone, staking out a home, etc.) reduces the level of effort required to infringe someone's privacy, and greatly increases the chances that someone's privacy will be infringed. This is why forcing cops to get warrants is considered a good part of the justice system, while the mass "perusal" of aggregated information is considered bad (for privacy).

        Aggregation of data is an invasion of privacy because it lowers the level of effort and increases the chances of an invasion of privacy? Nobody is going to test that tortured logic? You're fighting a losing battle against time and technology with this thinking.

        Nobody needs a warrant or special permission to tail someone in public. Intuition is not a violation of privacy. Anyone can aggregate this information, and anyone can collect it. A single smartphone could sweep up thousands of plates a day, and a

        • Re:Sort of redundant (Score:4, Interesting)

          by joe_frisch ( 1366229 ) on Wednesday March 25, 2015 @12:06AM (#49333367)

          The risk of large scale surveillance is that it can generate data sets that can be mined for information. Tracking can show networks of friends, attendance at political rallies, books read, movies watched, foods and alcohol consumed. Does this pattern match for a potential terrorist - can't prove anything, but maybe you shouldn't keep your job at Lockheed, or should get extra screening at the airport? Did you watch "little miss sunshine" too many times for your demographic - could mean you are a pedophile - maybe you shouldn't have a job as a school teacher - think of the children.

          Which political information should you see? Candidates can target their adds to YOU specifically. Same for news, and advertising.

          Maybe you don't get enough sleep, or are found to meet women ( or other men) at bars and take them home. Sounds like "statistically" you might be a health risk and your insurance rates will go up.

          Large scale tracking, data collection and analysis allow for statistical pattern matches. The public might be happy that a new system has a only 1% failure rate, and only a 10% false positive rate for recognizing people who are a danger to children - unless you are in that 10%

      • It is really quite a stretch of the imagination to think that a license plate contains any private information. And really it is not even a modern issue. In Virginia in the 1940s the city paid a bounty on a car found with an expired tag and the hunt started at midnight. People looking to get a reward would open garage doors into the wee hours and shine a light on the license plates. Think about it. Virginia actually allowed penetration of closed garages in the wee hours by civilians just to assur
    • 1.1 MILLION people?? (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      This is bulk surveillance data, you could not follow 1.1 million people around individually, but the police clearly are logging the location and time where they go via automatic number plate readers.

      Imagine the sort of data Uber God mode offers. That one 'an employee' said was used to track a journalist critical of them, and he was promptly sacked.

      Who is with whom, who is having an affair with who, where their kids go to school, if they see a source of a story, or investigate something, all that location da

    • by AK Marc ( 707885 )
      Nope. Because it's impossible for a government to follow everyone. Because to have that many watchers would bankrupt the country. It would take $100k per year or more to follow me. So the theory doesn't matter because the reality is "no".
  • by YrWrstNtmr ( 564987 ) on Tuesday March 24, 2015 @08:28PM (#49332369)
    Future data - If I decide you are someone who I do not like, I can simply follow you around and log locations. But if you suspect me, you can change your habits.
    Past data - With access to this data, I can see where you've been. Last week, last month, last year
    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 24, 2015 @09:48PM (#49332757)

      The anti-abortion protestors already do this, they record license plates at abortion clinics and try to follow people. This would give them a big chunk of surveillance data to locate where they live, their job, the kids schools, their friends, their hangouts, their shopping mall,....

      They've committed no crime, so why do the police keep innocent peoples data?

      Why would you put the private data of innocent people in the hands of every random nutter, some of which have a uniform and a gun?

    • Do you think it is reasonable for a cop who gets information that you have been in a bar for five hours stop you when you get in your car and do a drunk driving test? You and i both know that there is surely a better than 80% chance that a bar patron after five hours in a bar is unfit to drive. Now suppose a computer is used to notify a cop that you are starting to drive away from that bar? To me that seems like reasonable and effective use of police resources.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Slide on TFA says that the reads are taken from the IR camera. I have wondered in the past if illuminating the license with IR, or covering the license with a film which has different IR and optical properties might be enough to screw up the OCR. Intersting.

  • by JimMcc ( 31079 ) on Tuesday March 24, 2015 @08:47PM (#49332477) Homepage

    My biggest fear of this technology is that people may be investigated for no reason other than that their car was seen in close proximity to where a crime was committed. Police and district attorneys have been found to fit the evidence to match an individual. This has lead to, at a minimum an extended "interview" at the police station, and at a maximum being put to death. Was your car parked at the entrance to an alley while you picked up a pizza at the same time somebody was raped in the alley? How much money do you have for an attorney?

     

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Not only this, be ready for much more when every cop car in the country has license plate scanners installed. Driving in residential neighborhood past sunset other than where your plates are registered at? Get ready to be pulled over and have to explain to some cop why you are there.

      • by bhlowe ( 1803290 )
        I'd happily trade a little freedom for more security. slash sarcasm
      • I got pulled by one and thought it was bs at first. "No, something is screwed up." Turns out my insurance had lapsed because I screwed up auto pay, and therefore my license had been suspended. He was facing traffic and I even looked at him when I passed, but his plate reader was mounted on his trunk. All in all, as much as I felt screwed, I'm kinda glad he pulled me and I didn't find out by getting into an accident without insurance.

    • Or it could exonerate you. Some years back a black office worker went to lunch. A crime was committed some miles away by a black man. The police zeroed in on this guy even though he would have to have driven over the speed limit all the way to and from the crime scene and had green lights all the way. Even though people swore they saw him have lunch a few blocks from his office he couldn't prove where he was.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by gewalker ( 57809 )

        Probably would not be useful to exonerate as it would only say where your car was, not where you were. For some reason, circumstantial incriminating evidence is is often more likely to be accepted than exculpatory evidence. Of course, it should be the other way around. A good defense lawyer flips this back in your favor.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      My biggest fear of this technology is that people may be investigated for no reason other than that their car was seen in close proximity to where a crime was committed.

      Your second biggest fear should be that the police will CLAIM your car was near a crime, so why don't you come in and chat, meanwhile they're seeking to prosecute you for ANOTHER crime.

    • My biggest fear of this technology is that people may be investigated for no reason other than that their car was seen in close proximity to where a crime was committed.

      So... you'd completely ignore that information, or what?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      My biggest fear of this technology is that people may be investigated for no reason other than that their car was seen in close proximity to where a crime was committed.

      My biggest fear is that this technology will be used to investigate anyone who challenges the powerful. Like the way the FBI tried to blackmail MLK Jr. [eff.org] The ability to retroactively look back at anyone's movements means that even if today you are utterly boring and of no interest to anyone beyond your friends and family, the minute you do become interesting to someone with enough power, they can "press rewind" on your life and start looking for ways to get leverage on you.

  • Just like cameras on police. There needs to be a retention policy and those policies need to be met unless there's a reason to retain them longer (like a court order).

    • Just like cameras on police.

      Actually, just like cameras on police, this data should not be automatically released to the public. If a journalist makes a FOI request, the police should be required to tell them how many license plates were scanned, how the data was used, how many prosecutions/convictions resulted, etc. But the bulk data should NOT have been released. Likewise with cop cams. If the cop interviews a rape victim, there is no reason that the video should be released to the public so it can be posted on Youtube.

    • Why is the issue here the FOI request and the records being made public and not the fact that a branch of the government is collecting that massive amount of data in the first place? The government can abuse that date more efficiently than any member of the public can.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    "four LPR units for 16 months, it had read 793,273 plates and had 2,012 hits—a “hit rate” of 0.2 percent"

    Depending on what counts as a hit... (too many traffic tickets count or only get away cars/stolen cars?) this is a really big success.

    That comes out to about 377 instances where a car was wanted by the cops found per camera per year. A cop doing that manually would get what? 1 a year?

    At that rate I might actually get my stolen car back. Fix the privacy issues so we can roll this out

    • Did those hits actually result in a vehicle being stopped and possibly recovered? I seem to remember seeing several cases where police departments were collecting all this data but only ever using it for pet cases and ignoring plenty of low hanging fruit. The one that sticks out in my memory at the moment was were a wanted person's vehicle, drove past the same camera's everyday on the same schedule but they never checked to see if the wanted person was driving it.

  • by bhlowe ( 1803290 ) on Tuesday March 24, 2015 @10:24PM (#49332905)
    Even if the police make this data private, the general population will jump in to make this (and most) data such as this freely available. A small box located near your mailbox will be able to record every car that drives by and capture video of anyone walking by.

    This technology is already available in the flying world-- where FlightAware [flightaware.com] makes a plane tracker that publishes flight data from the skies to the public.

    Take away lesson is your data will be mined. If you think license plate data is a breach, just wait for ubiquitous facial recognition data going to the public domain.

    Brave new world!

    • by stephanruby ( 542433 ) on Tuesday March 24, 2015 @11:22PM (#49333171)

      Even if the police make this data private, the general population will jump in to make this (and most) data such as this freely available.

      Actually, there are private companies [consumerist.com] that already do this. They drive around streets and parking lots scanning people's license plates. Then they aggregate that information on a national level to resell to other companies. This data is really handy for car/truck repos, private detectives, and stalker exes.

      And the information they have dwarves any information the police department has themselves. It's such a new area, it's not regulated yet.

      • by Reziac ( 43301 ) *

        This weekend I saw a guy apparently picnicking across the road from my house. After a while I went over to see WTF, and turns out he was working for a mapping company (and the company drone was flying overhead, snapping photos). He told me that their maps are accurate to within 1/8th inch.

  • For about the last 7 years SPD has been parking license plate reading cars around the city and just lets them start scanning everything that passes by. They said it is to look for stolen vehicles, but the records are kept forever even if the plates come up clean.
  • "For instance, during a meeting with an Oakland city council member, Ars was able to accurately guess the block where the council member lives after less than a minute of research using his license plate data"

    Couldn't they just get the address from the same place they got his license plate data?

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