Automatic License Plate Readers track your every move [telecom]

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.


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Reply to
Monty Solomon
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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.

Reply to
***** 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 Moderator

Hi Bill,

Here are some responses:

I¹m aware of this happening with red light cameras, but not to my knowledge with ALPR here in MA.

To my knowledge, no, but I¹m 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.

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.

Reply to
Kade Crockford

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.


Reply to
John Mayson

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?

Reply to
Adam H. Kerman

Kade Crockford wrote in :

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.


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Reply to
Koos van den Hout


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 citation.

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 fines.

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.
Reply to
Bill Horne

Per Bill Horne:

That one made my "keepers" file.


Reply to
Pete Cresswell


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' name.

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 Moderator

Reply to
Robert Bonomi

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.

Reply to
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