[David Strom's Web Informant] The implications of automated license plate readers

David Strom david at strom.com
Sat May 14 00:26:45 EDT 2016

Web Informant, May 14, 2016: The implications of automated license plate

One of the more interesting aspects of our surveillance society is the use
of automated license plate reader (ALPR) technology by law enforcement to
track the movements of vehicles. Our legal system is far behind in treating
this technology, and activists are just beginning to challenge our
government in terms of proper use, managing citizen expectations, and
shedding daylight on the technology and the resulting data collections.

I got interested in this technology after several trips to Israel: the main
north/south freeway uses both the ALPR system and an RFID system to send
tolls to those who use the roads. If you have a transponder, you are
recognized by the RFID system. If you don't the ALPR system will send you a
bill from the rental company for the tolls a few weks after your rental.
Theses sorts of systems are also used in several cities around the world
for congestion pricing (London has been doing this for years) when a driver
enters the central business district.

Then I read this article in Motherboard about how the Philadelphia police
department was using ALPR equipment that was mounted to a vehicle with
Google markings.
police departments often use decoy vehicles with fake business logos to
hide in plain sight, I think this is the first time anyone was attempting
to pass off a Google Street Maps vehicle in this fashion. Naturally, Google
was not amused nor apparently consulted in this move. And while the Philly
police is allowed to collect license plate data, they can’t just
appropriate some legitimate business.

These automated readers are pretty powerful tools: some can collect
thousands of plates an hour and can even recognize mud-splattered plates
through infrared imaging. When I did my ride-along with a St. Louis city
cop, he had me running plates the old fashioned way: by entering them one
at a time into a car-mounted computer terminal to query a central database.
It wasn’t a cumbersome process, but it did take a moment, if I typed in the
plate correctly. (There is a great plot point in the Amazon series “Bosch”
that hinges on a mistyped plate number, for fans of that fictional

But you might start asking questions, which is what I did, about what
happens to this data once it is collected. Obviously, the chances of abuse
are huge. Several years ago, the ACLU issued a report that looked in the
potentials for abuse and said that ALPR technology can be "deployed with
too few rules and could become a tool for mass routine location tracking
and surveillance."

On top of this there is an open data movement <http://openalpr.com/> that
allows anyone with a webcam to upload the plates they have collected to a
central website. While I am normally a fan of open data, this also has
great abuse potential too. What if one of my neighbors starts tracking my
movements inadvertently?

There are no federal statutes that limit this collection of data, and of
course each state has their own regulations about how long data can be
retained and who has access to this data. Minnesota, for example, limits
the data collected to only active investigations, and requires the rest to
be destroyed. Some states don’t have any requirements about destruction of
their data, and others allow agencies to keep the data for years. And there
are two private companies that collect plate data and share the information
with insurers and car repo vendors, among others.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has already brought one lawsuit against
the Los Angeles police departments. According to the EFF, LAPD and LA
county sheriff’s departments have collected millions of plates each week. The
EFF has a nice page summarizing what these rulings across the country are
at the moment

So what can you do to defend yourself, especially if you aren’t a suspect?
The answer is not much. You might be able to obscure your plate on your car
if it is parked in your driveway on your own property, but once you drive
it on a public street you have to keep it visible. Also, you should become
familiar with the EFF talking points for activists, which are illuminating
In the meantime, keep an eye out for strange vans parked on your street.

Comments always welcome here:  http://blog.strom.com/wp/?p=5312
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