You've Been Tagged! - Automatic License Plate Readers Dramatically Increase in US - Surveillance State.

posted Jan 14, 2013, 3:22 AM by Peter Joseph Moons

By Peter Joseph Moons.

Coban's Edge Vision System
COBAN Technologies' EdgeVision ALPR

 Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs) are expanding rapidly in use in the US and elsewhere.  The collected  photographs of license plates are databased with date/time/location stamp and made available for investigators or researchers later.  Any and all vehicles transiting in front of ALPRs have their license plate data captured by the camera.  People are asking, 'for what end?'

An ALPR captures your license plate data as a vehicle is driven by its field of view.  Without the driver's knowledge, the ALPR scans, records, and databases your plate number, identifying the owner, often even if the auto's plates are from Canada, Mexico, or any US state.  Some ALPR's, can even link "driver's license [and] social security" with the auto's license plate data, like the device from Motorola, whose screen looks like this:
Motorola's ALPR

ALPRs are now being fielded in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which raised the public's interest:
Some people 
in Vermont are also unhappy about ALPRs deployed in their town:

The ACLU produced a map of states where ALPRs are in use - most US states already employ ALPRs.  The ACLU is querying authorities asking how they use the ALPRs.

Analysis: Vehicles are on public streets and in public view so there is virtually no expectation of privacy for the transit of the vehicle within view of the ALPR camera.  Granted, as a research tool for investigating crimes, the databasing of millions of photos with date/time stamps from ALPRs is invaluable.  The capabilities of some of the ALPRs are phenomenal: the Elsag Mobile Plate Hunter-900 ALPR System captures "up to 1,800 license plate reads per minute, day or night, accurately recognizing plates from all 50 states, Canada, Mexico and many Arabic "speed up to 150 mph" and alerts authorities in "milliseconds" if a suspect vehicle has been detected.  Those are great capture and identification capabilities.

What is missing in this discussion is the fact that only a fraction of a percentage of the autos whose photos are taken actually belong to someone sought by the authorities; the rest are normal vehicle owners who have a right to transit unhindered on roadways.  Law enforcement authorities would do well to assuage public concern, like that seen above in the commentary by the TV station general manager, and provide more transparency on their database for the photos.  

The public should be informed the length of time the photos are maintained, who has access to them, with what other agencies they are shared, and who is searching the database.  Some governments may even make the databases a matter of public record.  

Unfortunately, the majority of drivers never consented to having their  photos taken, so this point may become a factor in future legal and ethical deliberations.  There is great potential for misuse of these ALPR databases and unbeknownst to the general public in the US and other countries, usage of ALPR is expanding rapidly.  There are over 20 ALPR manufactures and suppliers in the US and Canada alone.  So while the public may think there is a right to know about ALPR employment, fixed and mobile ALPRs are becoming increasingly common.

Government Control Grade: 8.  (This grade is high as the employment of ALPRs in most communities happens without any public discussion; similarly, the public does not know where the ALPRs are, what they are doing, and what subsequently happens to their license plate data.  In effect, there is no transparency in the process.  In effect, ALPRs are surreptitiously vacuuming data on the public without the public's direct consent.)

Freedom Grade: 2. (The public can only choose to not drive if they do not want their license plate data scanned by ALPRs.)