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Privacy Transportation

New Software Puts License Plate Scanners Into Citizens' Hands (arstechnica.com) 238

An anonymous reader writes: Automated license plate readers have become a serious point of contention between law enforcement and privacy-minded citizens. But the advance of technology might make it a moot point — with some open source software and a cheap webcam, anyone can now start cataloging the cars visiting their street. A two-man team developed OpenALPR and started distributing it for free, along with the source code. Law enforcement and the agencies that build their plate scanners have argued in favor of the legality of such data collection, so it's not like they can suddenly start cracking down on private citizens doing the same. "An enterprising person could even use a car-mounted camera and create a mobile plate hunting device along the lines of what many police agencies already use." Is this particular privacy fight one that's still winnable?
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New Software Puts License Plate Scanners Into Citizens' Hands

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  • I believe paint ball guns are still legal.

    • Yes, but firing them at people who haven't agreed to a game is not. Enjoy getting arrested and/or shot with real gun.

  • by turkeydance ( 1266624 ) on Saturday December 05, 2015 @06:08PM (#51064081)
    will be first in line to get this....and, knowing our local ones, they might do an 'Apple camp out'.
    • What is an Apple camp out?

    • Maybe 4-ish years ago, I called my local police department to see if they would want to work with crime watch organizations that installed cheap FOSS license plate readers to monitor traffic into various neighborhoods. At the time, they were only interested in using that technology to monitor the neighborhoods where most of the crimes occur, rather than worrying about the mostly sleepy suburbs.

      FOSS license plate readers are here. Just wait for the facial recognition software to complement it. We'll know

      • by Lumpy ( 12016 )

        I have 1080P HD cameras outside my home, I certainly want this reader software looking at my driveway to catalog who has been here.

        Considering that I can get 8 megapixel security cameras if I went to the high end ones, suddenly you can get enough data from a single picture to really nail things down.

        The sad part is guys like me that likes to tinker and casinos are the only ones that have this stuff. Gas stations and other businesses as well as the state cameras are all 40 year old 480line interlaced garba

        • by Nethead ( 1563 )

          The ones I've seen in my town are on the Repo tow trucks. When they don't have a hot lead they just cruse parking lots waiting for a hit.

      • In my state, ownership and other information is not available to citizens via license plate. It is only accessible by police, and they have to give a reason to access it.

        Police can lose and have lost their jobs over accessing the information without a valid reason.
  • Unmarked police cars (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 05, 2015 @06:17PM (#51064109)

    After watching police documentaries I often thought that surveillance of police station car parks would give you a good list of unmarked (and marked) police car VRNs. Couple that with static (entry points to housing estates, etc.) or vehicle mounted cameras and you have automated early warning of police in your area.

    • "Couple that with static (entry points to housing estates, etc.) or vehicle mounted cameras and you have automated early warning of police in your area."

      Sure, but it will also recognize the plates of my mother-in-law and automatically shutting the lights off and locking all the doors.

      Or when that creep who's seeing my daughter drives by or in general any unknown car that repeatedly drives through with no reason could be a clue that something shifty is going on.

    • by Lumpy ( 12016 )

      Hiring a crack head to take photos of all cars entering and leaving the police parking garage over the course of 2 days will give you the same. It's been done for decades by criminals that have more than 80 iq points.

      Luckily most criminals don't have more than that.

  • by Rick Zeman ( 15628 ) on Saturday December 05, 2015 @06:22PM (#51064131)

    ...when the first guy sets up right in front of the police station. Or better yet, in front of the officer having an affair's house.

    • You know, we went through this globally with Russia already. You know where it lead to? Blowing up the moon.
    • If the police aren't doing anything wrong, they shouldn't have anything to hide. Right?
      • "If the police aren't doing anything wrong, they shouldn't have anything to hide. Right?"

        Ironically perhaps, that is a valid line of reasoning in this case, since this isn't a privacy issue. These are police officers - paid officials on duty - that are being recorded, so there's no expectation of privacy.

    • ...when the first guy sets up right in front of the city's administrative offices. Or better yet, in front of the politician having an affair's house.

      FTFY Police aren't the ones setting these policies.

    • by Cederic ( 9623 )

      Forget that. Hook it up to 'police vehicle recognition' (pretty easy in the UK, they all have common markers) and start tracking police vehicles.

      "3am, on the A42 just south of Oxford. Nope, hasn't seen a police car for eight months: Hit it!"

  • by Anonymous Coward

    If enough of us nerds have these and aggregate the data, we can see where the cops are going and make sure they are out and about doing their jobs. As the summary says, it cuts both ways. Start watching the watchers.

    • by Intron ( 870560 )

      If enough of us nerds have these and aggregate the data, we can see where the cops are going and make sure they are out and about doing their jobs. As the summary says, it cuts both ways. Start watching the watchers.

      Also where the politicians are spending their time (and our money). Remember Gary Hart?

  • District court (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Okian Warrior ( 537106 ) on Saturday December 05, 2015 @06:26PM (#51064157) Homepage Journal

    I was summoned to district court for an 8:00 AM hearing, and discovered - quite by accident - that the judge didn't bother to arrive until 10:00 AM. My lawyer mentioned that this was typical.

    Everyone had to wait around and was forced to listen to some insipid video about drunk driving (irrelevant to my landlord/tenant purpose) for two hours over and over before the judge bothered to arrive.

    I've often wondered how useful it would be to mount a trail camera behind the courthouse and log the judge's arrival times, and then make that information public. Say, 6 months of study.

    I wonder how long it will be before someone modifies this software to automatically log the comings and goings of government servants to a public website.

    I'd be interested to know if the people I'm paying (with my taxes) are putting in a full 40 hours.

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      Anyone care to comment on the legality of using ANPR in public? In most countries having CCTV cover public areas is acceptable. I imagine the police would be irritated if someone, say, set up a web site for clients to upload data to and then displayed a map with the location of police cars on it, but are there any specific laws against it?

      • by jopsen ( 885607 )

        In most countries having CCTV cover public areas is acceptable.

        Know a list? There certain is a lot of places where CCTV is heavily restricted.

        • Or illegal to be explode like in Germany and Austria.

          • by KGIII ( 973947 )

            Or illegal to be explode like in Germany and Austria.

            I am truly at a loss here. I think I'm pretty good at parsing typo and ESL text. I can even get the gist from machine translations. This one baffles me. Exploding cameras? I think those are probably illegal in more than Germany or Austria.

            • by Cederic ( 9623 )

              Exploit?

              Or, assuming some machine translation fubar, whatever the complex concatenated German word for 'put out on a massive scale' is.

              • by KGIII ( 973947 )

                That might be it! I was at "explore" when I got to the point of typing out a reply. I'd tried a bunch of words that began with E and a bunch that might be synonyms for explode but I didn't think of "exploit."

                But exploited by whom? How? It's very iffy even then. Usually the GGP makes sense (I've seen 'em post before) but that one is beyond me. I tried thinking of what words might be automatically turned into that by a phone's keyboard. I probably spent a few minutes trying to figure it out before I gave up a

  • DMV data required (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Tommy Carpenter ( 4202129 ) on Saturday December 05, 2015 @06:26PM (#51064159)
    This is not all that helpful or useful unless you can connect to the DMV databases that links the plate to the person.
    • You could use it to track, say, unmarked police vehicles. Does not matter who is driving them and it would not be hard to collect a large database of them.

    • This is true. But more importantly, why would you need that information? Unless it's for educational purposes, I don't see why the average person would need to process that information. Maybe you can sell your database to law enforcement? But then everbody would do it, and it would quickly become cheap. Like the value of your data to Facebook.
      • TO watch the watchers, obviously. The average person is a citizen, that is all that is needed to keep tabs on our government.
    • That's true for now. Once multiple people start pooling and cross-referencing their private databases, it'll be easy picking out patterns like which location is most frequently visited by a car - indicating their home address.
    • by Shoten ( 260439 )

      This is not all that helpful or useful unless you can connect to the DMV databases that links the plate to the person.

      It's totally helpful if you can connect it to any database with meaningful information...including one that you yourself assemble.

      For example...issue an FOIA request for the plate registrations of all vehicles registered to a specific jurisdiction.

      Or simply do the simplest of data mining for the plate numbers that are seen...if they pass through the sensor at least a few times in a 2 week period, it's a damned sure bet that they are either the personal or work vehicles of employees there. A bit of manual f

    • "This is not all that helpful or useful unless you can connect to the DMV databases that links the plate to the person."

      While access to such a database would be a game changer, it is not true that it is completely useless without it, as there are other ways to tie plates to people, albeit on a much smaller scale. Suppose I want to keep a watch on my wife and coworkers. It would be pretty easy to see who gets in and out of what car at work, and if I can't figure out my wife's license plate then I guess it

    • I considered cobbling together a system like this in 2011, coupled with a speed gun and driver photographing camera - mounted in my mailbox. Speed limit on our street is 20mph, but we get cars coming around our (blind) curve at 50+ at all hours - perhaps only 8 or 10 times a month, often enough to be a concern, not often enough to easily catch.

      I happened to hear one coming once while I was out walking, and managed to get a visual ID of the occupants, that one was a divorced dad bringing his daughter home w

      • by Lumpy ( 12016 )

        I love it when it's some dumb pizza driver. I nailed some low IQ, 20 something punk blasting down the residential street at 60 by calling his store and describing the car to the manager. She was very upset and thanked me for reporting him.

    • You are so wrong.

      Imagine I own a store and I want to know as much about my customers as possible. I can place this license plate reader on the entrances and exits to my parking lot. With each purchase I have access to what was purchased when. With a little bit of statistical analysis I can place plates to buyers by comparing when I saw a car come and go to the time stamp on purchases.

      For the rare visitor I may only know the state and county of the customer from the automated data. If the software does n

      • You forgot one, but who cares?
        I started out as a sysadmin and had access to everyone's email and files. I thought it'd be great to dig up some dirt, find out who was fucking who etc. After a short time, the novelty wears off and you realise the info you thought would be interesting actually isn't. So the Sales manager is fucking his PA, or the marketing team are coke fiends, or the IT manager is stealing hardware and selling it on eBay. It all becomes uninteresting really quickly and you wonder why you've
    • Wouldn't be too hard for a group of like minded individuals to start sharing intel. Google Docs a list of plates of known people on both sides of the law and the rest is trivial.
  • ...it's what government will do with the information. Private citizens shouldn't have an issue; but we should forbid police from having such technology/information. There's a lot that private citizens can and should be able to do that government should not; the few exception are things like weapons of mass destruction and the judicial system.
    • Sadly, very few citizens feel this way. They have this strange idea that police are basically our parents and we need permission to do anything.
    • Keep in mind that the court generally won't restrict the police if the technology is generally available. So if a technology with surveillance capabilities is commonly used by the general populace, then you can't usually prevent the state from employing it. Besides, think about it: the idea that someone driving the highway can link cars, by tag, to individuals and their home address is kind of creepy. Automated stalking.
  • by watermark ( 913726 ) on Saturday December 05, 2015 @07:15PM (#51064393)

    Let's start using LCD panels for plates. The number changes every 12 hours or so. Police could still use it to match it based on the date/time it was scanned, but makes scanning by private citizens useless. #maintainthestatusquo

    • Re:LCD plates (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Zero__Kelvin ( 151819 ) on Saturday December 05, 2015 @09:46PM (#51065089) Homepage
      What problem would this solve? All that would do is ensure that the cops have the power but the average citizen doesn't, thereby tipping even further the already severely out of balance scale of "justice".
    • by Lumpy ( 12016 )

      Sounds like a plan, you first. You need to give us $15,000 for your new license plate, it's easily broken and you have ot pay for a replacement or face a $10,000 fine for having it broken.

  • To make this an effective counter to intrusive government surveillance, all of the scanned license plate data by private citizens would need to be uploaded to a central, publicly accessible, database. Then the average citizen could assess where their elected representatives were at at given time. Same goes for where law enforcement individuals are.

    If we do this enough, maybe "they" will understand why this technology is such a privacy violation.
    • "If we do this enough, maybe "they" will understand why this technology is such a privacy violation."

      No, they won't understand that, mostly because it isn't a privacy violation by any stretch of the imagination. What, pray tell, makes you think that a number you display to all onlookers in public is private information?

  • if yo get enough people doing this, ideally in a mobile version, you can start tracking and geo-locating vehicles; which can then be correlated with locations on Google maps.
  • 2 4 (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MalleusEBHC ( 597600 ) on Saturday December 05, 2015 @08:00PM (#51064591)

    Yet another nice thing about riding a bicycle: no license plate.

    • Thanks for eating the > sign in the intended "2 > 4" subject line.

      • I just assumed you forgot the "6 8, who do we appreciate!
  • by devslash0 ( 4203435 ) on Saturday December 05, 2015 @10:26PM (#51065241)
    It all started when I decided to use my old mobile phone (android) as a dash cam in February this year. At first I wrote a single app to record video footage from the road. It can store on average up to 3 days of footage that can be then sent to my home server over WIFI when I park my car in front of my house. In April, however, I also added a plate recognition subsystem. It performs surprisingly well for such a cheap solution. Now I can tag plate numbers and assign notifications for specific tags. For example I receive a sound notification when I am passing my boss/friends/work colleagues. I also have a separate group for people who I have seen driving badly before. It generates a warning sound whenever the camera spots them. :-]
    • It all started when I decided to use my old mobile phone (android) as a dash cam in February this year. At first I wrote a single app to record video footage from the road. It can store on average up to 3 days of footage that can be then sent to my home server over WIFI when I park my car in front of my house. In April, however, I also added a plate recognition subsystem. It performs surprisingly well for such a cheap solution. Now I can tag plate numbers and assign notifications for specific tags. For example I receive a sound notification when I am passing my boss/friends/work colleagues. I also have a separate group for people who I have seen driving badly before. It generates a warning sound whenever the camera spots them. :-]

      Nice. Is it open source somewhere?

      • Not really but I think I could clean up the code and make it open source when I have some more time over Christmas.
  • What's the issue here? When you're in public, you have no expectation of privacy. We might have gotten used to being anonymous most of the time, but there's nothing inherent or ethical about that...

    • by KGIII ( 973947 )

      I think it's about degree and it's more about that than anything else. There are shades of privacy and anonymity, they're not binary. So, we're reducing our level of privacy and to what end? What is the goal here and is it worth the change in the way things are now?

      By my definition, that kind of fits the word ethics nicely. Ethics are situational and morals are absolute. There's nothing immoral about this but there may be something unethical here. There's some debate there but I tend to end up on the side o

  • The plate readers represent a two edged sword which likely is a far more power tool for committing crime than it will help enforcing the law. Passively scanning cars will create a register for when a car passed a spot allowing criminals easy ways to match cars with for homes, owners and family members, letting criminals do passive and active planning of potential victims.

    We cannot make the readers go away, so we would need to do something with the plates instead. This could technically be done as the plate

  • I still maintain there is a difference between the technology, like a person or org could make, and a government program. I would also contend that since they are so distributed, and their misuse of data, can have such serious consequences for others, that whether or not the police should be permitted to use their resources on something is quite a different question from whether private individuals should be able to persue it. The police should have more restrictions on them.

  • We don't need further tracking of our lives by the government or by the people trying to sell us stuff. I noticed advertising in my web browser based off of things I searched for on other sites. This is no doubt from tracking of my IP address or shared cookies. With this software am I going to get advertising based off of what shops I drove past that day?

    No doubt this will lower the cost of entry for petty tyrants in law enforcement that want to track people without cause or warrant. A device with licen

  • An iSpy plugin for license plate reading has been around for many years: http://www.ispyconnect.com/plu... [ispyconnect.com]

  • If misuse becomes a problem, we could have have smart license plates that show a periodically changing QR code that contains a random (but validatable) message encrypted with user's key. Then a proper authority can try all the keys in database (could use salt as a hint, but really even a billion keys does not take that long) until they find a valid message after decryption.

    One could even discourage random snooping / girlfriend stalking by cops on the beat by giving them instant access to only smaller databa

  • They will ban it soon. They don't like things like conversations being recorded, especially political conversations where they lie because they lie all the time. I'm sure they're going places they shouldn't as well.

    Technology - making it harder to be a twit.

  • There are a number of ANPR packages available.

    One that's of particular interest to me snaps plates and calculates vehicle speeds - I live in a street with a particularly irksome speeding problem (some drivers are regularly hitting 80-90mph in a 30mph zone) that the local authoritries refuse to address.

    It's known they've run long-term speedchecks on the road but have repeatedly refused FOI requests for the data, although it's known that "The average speeds is 33mph, so that's OK" - they went silent and start

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