Automatic License Plate Readers track your every move [telecom]

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Travelers checks: Automatic License Plate Readers track your every move

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty
July 14, 2011

ACLU of Massachusetts privacy rights coordinator Kade Crockford wrote
the following guest blog.

Remember the furor this spring, when we learned that iPhones and
other mobile devices were logging every move their users made?
Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs) would do something similar to
your car.

Late last year, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts advertised a
$300,000 grant from the federal Department of Transportation for the
purchase of ALPRs. Over 90 agencies in the state applied; 27 were
given the grant money.

Many of these towns (see a full list here) have already implemented
the technology. At least one, Brookline, is currently struggling with
whether or not to accept the funds and implement an ALPR.

ALPRs are not ordinary cameras. Attached to police cruisers, or fixed
on telephone poles or other stationary places, the cameras snap an
image of nearly every license plate they encounter. The device
produces a file for each image captured, which includes searchable
text displaying the time, date and GPS location of the car when and
where the plate was 'read'. This information is fed into a database,
where it can be shared with other agencies and databases, and "mined"
or analyzed.

One of the major problems with ALPR technology is that it sucks up
all license plates, not simply those associated with people suspected
of wrongdoing. Therefore as the technology expands, it is possible
that law enforcement will be able to track your movements with
incredible precision as you go about your daily life in your car.
Without proper privacy protections backed by the force of law, ALPRs
become yet another tracking technology.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of agencies using these machines
have little to no regulation controlling their use. The state
legislature in Massachusetts has yet to act to protect us from this
kind of tracking.

And the technology is spreading fast. ALPRs are the new rage in law
enforcement. A New York Times article from a few months ago described
how the NYPD is rapidly expanding its ALPR program. The city
currently has hundreds of the cameras, operating out of its counter
terrorism office. Combined with its thousands of surveillance cameras
and its advanced database mining programs, the NYPD aims to create a
"ring of steel" in downtown Manhattan, allowing for near total
surveillance over the people in that area.

Here in Massachusetts, police are just beginning to use ALPR technology.


Re: Automatic License Plate Readers track your every move [telecom]
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Quoted text here. Click to load it


Here in RI they put them to good use. They gave them to the boot squad.
Now they just drive around and they get an alert when there's a vehicle
to be booted.

Re: Automatic License Plate Readers track your every move [telecom]

***** Moderator's Note *****

The recent story about Automatic License Plate Reader technology
piqued my curiosity, so I sent an email to the author of the blog,
Kade Crockford of the ACLU of Massachusetts, and asked her to answer
some questions for the Digest. My questions to Ms. Crockford are the
ones shown as quoted text in her email reply.

Bill Horne

Hi Bill,

Here are some responses:

Quoted text here. Click to load it

Iım aware of this happening with red light cameras, but not to my knowledge
with ALPR here in MA.

Quoted text here. Click to load it

To my knowledge, no, but Iım not sure I fully understand your question. I
understand that the technology works by taking a photograph of each plate
the camera encounters, converting the plate number to searchable text, and
then running the number through any number of databases to look for a "hit".

Therefore in order to function, the machine must snap an image of every
single plate it passes, not simply those that raise a red flag. It is then
up to police departments or the agency using the device to decide what to do
with the data. Some agencies --- most, probably --- keep it for a certain
amount of time and likely share it with other agencies. This is where the
data-mining and tracking comes in to play. The privacy implications of the
technology are really rooted in data sharing and retention policies, like so
much else in the digital surveillance era.

Quoted text here. Click to load it

Do you have shades on your windows at home? Do you tell your boss the same
stories you tell your friends? Have you ever gone anywhere alone on purpose?
Ever had a secret?

The notion that a desire for personal privacy is somehow contingent upon
involvement in criminal activity is not just fatuous but dangerous. Police
states like that in East Germany and the one developing in China relied and
rely on the absolute erasure of personal privacy from the polity in order to
exert their dominance. Privacy is not only something that most people want;
it is necessary to a functioning democracy.

The main problem with the argument you outlined above is that it fails to
consider the fact that once these systems are developed, with little to no
privacy protections, they will be very, very difficult to rein in or
dismantle. So even if you trust your Chief of Police today, or the FBI or
the leaders in Congress and the White House, how can you be sure that the
next group of people to hold power will not abuse these systems? Power does
not give up power without a great fight, and so we must work to regain and
maintain our privacy from unwarranted government surveillance before it is
too late.

Re: Automatic License Plate Readers track your every move [telecom]
My question is do we have an expectation of privacy in a public space?
 Having shades in our windows at home is different than operating a
motor vehicle on a public road.  Police can already read license
plates with their eyeballs and have been able to for decades.  But if
a machine does it, that's bad?

Just playing Devil's Advocate here, I really have no strong opinions either way.


Austin, Texas, USA

Re: Automatic License Plate Readers track your every move [telecom]

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I'll agree that the ACLU representative's analogy was a little
specious and that there is no expectation of privacy in public.

But then the questions to ask: If the right to privacy doesn't exist,
should we at least expect anonymity when seen by police, without
police making attempts to positively identify one and all and trying
to track movements?  When the police are not investigating crimes,
should they still treat every encounter with someone as a potential
criminal or potential witness?  If police resources are investigating
"citizens above suspicion", are they ignoring investigate crimes and
criminals the public does need protection from?

Re: Automatic License Plate Readers track your every move [telecom]

Quoted text here. Click to load it

Were you trying to get to the point of certain government officials wanting
to be completely exempt from any vehicle tracking? I can imagine certain
types of USA government officials (FBI, Secret service, NSA) really not
wanting to be tracked because otherwise they would have to trust every
single person with access to this system to not leak that information.

But public knowledge of such an exemption would immediately completely
undermine the 'trust us, we will not abuse this' needed to get the public
to accept this. If highranking government officials do not trust it, why
should the public.

Personally I think the only way data like this is safe from abuse is not
to collect it.


Koos van den Hout                               Homepage: /
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Re: Automatic License Plate Readers track your every move [telecom]
On Sat, Jul 23, 2011 at 10:12:06AM +0000, Koos van den Hout wrote:
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Knowing about abuses of a system might undermine public trust in other
countries, and I wish it were so here, but (at least in the U.S.), the
public chooses to be fearfully ignorant about the way the government
really works.

In the U.S., license plates used by undercover policemen are not kept
in the regular databases: they are issued and tracked by hand(1). That
means that they are immune from citations, because there is no place
to send the citations to, no name to lookup, etc.

Of course, there are problems with such a system: dedicated civil
servants who set their minds to finding the scofflaws must be taken
aside and advised that their efforts will not be productive. Since
civil servants are human, and prone to talk about their work, it's
inconvenient to leave such "X Files" lying around: the truth may not
be "out there", but the fact that someone is looking for it can cause
ripple effects which are hard to deal with.

A couple of years ago, I had a gig with a company that contracted
with local governments to deliver, account for, and collect payments
for parking citations(2).  Here's the juicy part: the portable
computers used by the meter maids contained an "exception" file, which
included license plate number that would receive special treatment. A
certain number could be coded as "Call boot squad", or "Plate does not
match VIN, alert police", etc. A registration number could *also* be
coded as "Ignore violation, do not cite". That meant that, no matter
the reason, certain plate numbers would never receive parking tickets
in those towns: the hand-held computers would refuse to record the

You see, if the mayor of a city doesn't want to have his whereabouts
tracked, he has two avenues of escape: he can use a car with a
"secret" license plate, or he can arrange to prevent the plate he uses
from ever being listed on a citation. From a politician's perspective,
the second solution is, by far, the better choice: judges can order
police departments to deliver their internal records of which "secret"
plates were cited, or various functionaries might come calling to ask
for favors based on their knowledge of the mayor's travels, or someone
who is not "entitled" to obtain a "secret" plate number might simply
notice that it adorns a car parked in the mayor's reserved parking
place at the city hall. It's much more secure, and less troublesome,
to prevent such chains of events from ever being started.

Of course, you see where this leads: those who have a say in the
contract awards for such companies are able to exert their power to
prevent themselves or their friends or their coworkers from ever
receiving a parking citation, at least in that city(3). If that
starts, what follows is inevitable: sooner or later, only those who
have no influence and no power will be the only ones who pay the

Bill Horne
(Filter QRM for direct replies)

1. Of course, that led to an obvious conclusion: anyone who checked a
license plate and found that it was _not_ in the database could
deduce that it was being used by an undercover cop. The police
departments now have "dummy" records in the computer, and are thus
able to take notice of anyone who is interested in the fictitious
names/addresses/whatever. It's called a "Canary trap" in the spy
trade: spread misleading information, and wait to see who sings.

2. Some cities even contracted with this firm to provide the personnel
whom issued the citations: even though the employees wore municipal
uniforms, they were not employed by the city or town they worked in,
so that the local government could force every iota of the cost for
citations onto the backs of the car owners, collect a percentage of
the fines, and never worry about providing health care or retirement
benefits to the meter maids. That is, of course, a side issue, but
still germaine to this discussion: non-government employees who are
working at 3 AM are less likely to think twice about taking bribes,
aren't part of the day-to-day workings of the government, won't see
the mayor's car in his reserved spot, etc. More to the point, there is
a big difference between a hardened, experienced policeman with access
to the "secret" records that show the mayor's plate number, and a
poorly trained menial who is desperate to keep her job and feed her
children on minimum wage.

3. It's worse than that: as a practical matter, the exception files
were always shared across every area that the contracting company
serviced, so that anyone whose plate number was in that file could
park their car illegally near the airport, which was in a town this
firm contracted to, and also at the sports arena, which was in a
different city that had also hired the firm I worked at. At contract
time, the firm's negotiator could choose to let this slip out, just so
that those sitting across the table knew exactly what they were
bargaining for. This is, of course, a hypothetical possibility and I
have no direct knowlege of it ever actually happening.

Re: Automatic License Plate Readers track your every move [telecom]
Per Bill Horne:
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That one made my "keepers" file.



***** Moderator's Note *****

Seems like a very mundane disclaimer to me. Are you reading anything
else into it?

Bill Horne

Re: Automatic License Plate Readers track your every move [telecom]
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*snort* <SNICKER>

Just what do you think happens when a uniformed officer runs a plate
and it comes back "not found" in the registration database?

To my certain knowledge, *forty*years*ago*, plates for unmarked/undercover
vehicles _were_ in the database(s), registered to entities with at least
a superficial existence.  "Deep undercover" officers usually had a fully-
established 'cover identity', and their vehicles were shown in their 'cover'

Usually the only people who knew the record was 'fictitious' was the
person creating the fictional identity.  Pretty much everything entered
the 'system' as a 'normal' transaction.  e.g. a 'private individual'
purchases the vehicle, and  registers it in the 'cover' name.

***** Moderator's Note *****

To my certain knowledge, Forty-plus years ago, it was done by hand in
Massachusetts. One assumes that computers have changed the procedure
somewhat, but the point remains: as a *practical* matter, it's
impossible to enforce parking citations issued for "secret" plates
unless the police department chooses to allow it.

Bill Horne

Re: Automatic License Plate Readers track your every move [telecom]
Quoted text here. Click to load it

Bill, I am glad you and your countrymen have a healthy suspicion about
this technology.  Here in the UK, quite apart from policing red lights,
speeding, and the London congestion charging zone, they also used by
private companies to police trivial things like overstaying in a
supermarket car park.

The company can, and does, for a small fee, apply to the DVLC (our
DMV) for the name and address of the owner and sends them a ticket.

There are enforcement and surveillance cameras just about everywhere
you go here.



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