License-plate-reading traffic cams may let anyone track everywhere you go, secretly

License-plate recognition is designed to help police catch felons, but the secondary effect is frightening

Massachusetts police agencies are testing technology that would let them check the legal status of drivers without racial profiling, stopping them for real or imagined traffic offenses, or even putting down a cup of coffee or radar gun.

The governor has approved state grants worth $500,000 to pay for Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) systems for the State Police and 26 local departments.

Using motion detectors or magnetic strips in the road tell when a car is in the target area, ALPR systems trigger visual or infrared flashes to light up the front and back license plates of cars.

Rather than giving speeders a ticket automatically, as intersection-monitoring cameras do in some urban areas in California, much of England and other areas, ALPR systems are designed to detect the license plate number and run it against a database of all the registered license plates accessible by State Police.

If the owner of the plate has any outstanding warrants, traffic violations, traffic tickets or other issues that could identify someone as a "person of interest" to police, an application running on a PC in the police cruiser alerts officers, giving the driver's name, description of the car and alleged offenses .

The systems are designed to alert police in the cruisers quickly enough to give chase, vastly improving their ability to identify and arrest wanted felons.

It also gives them the chance to harass passing motorists for no good reason, and subjects every driver passing an ALPR-equipped cruiser to a records-check by police with no more justification than their legal presence within the same area an ALPR-equipped cruiser, according to Massachusetts civil rights lawyer Harvey Silvergate.

"There comes a point where the surveillance is so pervasive and total that it's a misnomer to call a society free any longer," Silvergate told the Boston Herald.

An even larger problem is that the data picked up by such systems is not deleted, or at least has not scheduled to be in Massachusetts. That means databases of images or license-plate identifications made by ALPR systems will become a de facto tracking system that detects and stores as many as 30,000 license plates for every 8-hour shift an officer uses it, according to an analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union.

ALPR may help police nab a few felons here and there (a lot are arrested after being picked up for traffic offenses, for example).

The real value to law enforcement, according to the ACLU, is the giant piles of data ALPR will create that effectively map the movement of both large anonymized groups and individual drivers.

That data that could be used to analyze traffic patterns to identify bottlenecks and improve roadways. Or it could be used to create a historical record of the movements of one individual driver who comes to the attention of police – even when that driver is not accused of a crime and the motives of police running the report are suspect.

"The cops want to data-mine your driving habits," according to the ACLU position paper.

ALPR systems are in use in California, by 18 Washington D.C. area police agencies and in Washington State, where they're used to scan vehicles boarding ferry terminals to do quick background checks on drivers.

Only Maine and New Hampshire restrict the use of ALPR data.

It all sounds creepy, but not like a huge violation of everyone's rights, doesn't it? The databases are going to be huge and it would take a concerted effort to search a national database to identify the movements of a single person, so there would have to be some procedure in place to get the queries done and cops without a warrant wouldn't end up at the front of the line, right?

Search is fast enough and the sophistication of the UIs for search applications are simple enough that complex queries and long lines to submit them are unlikely, even in government agencies.

Google might even tap into them.

Think what a great tool that would be for parents concerned about their teenagers' whereabouts, vehicle-rental or fleet owners needing to keep track of their rolling stock, stalkers too lazy to go do the hard stalking necessary for a really good, psychotic obsession, jealous spouses, bosses who don't trust that you're going to lunch instead of someplace fun? Creepier but not critical unless your stalker can save up enough energy by remote lurking to have enough left over for the murder.

How about everyday invasions of privacy, like auto or health insurance companies tracking whether you drive too fast between one check point and another, drive through neighborhoods in which they'd prefer not to insure you?

The beauty, from their perspective, of ALPR is that they wouldn't have to convince you to put a GPS reporting unit in your car to give them a ridiculously detailed and private record of everywhere you go just to prove you're not driving recklessly while doing it?

There would be a limit, of course. How many cars can how many cop cars actually record every day?

The cops aren't out there just to be platforms for traffic cams, right? They go enforce the law, which might cut down on the number of plate identifications their machines can make in a shift.

ALPR cameras come in fixed-location versions, too, just like red-light traffic cams. Set one up by major commuter highways and key secondaries and you'll tag a big percentage of the population every day.

The idea that data would be available to the public isn't paranoid fantasy, either.

In Boston the holdup in implementing the cameras is that not all the license-plate databases can talk to each other, so the scans couldn't identify all the potential felons.

Companies like VigilantVideo are not only selling the systems, they're building privately accessible databases, access to which might be too expensive for your spouse, but won't be for your boss or insurance company.

Its National LPR Database Record count was 440,195,800 as I typed this, but was going up in chunks of between one and nine records about once a second.

With only 350-million-some people in the U.S., that's a lot more than one vehicle detection per person. Actually it's more likely to be a LOT of pictures of a lot of the same cars, in different locations, which is how you build that reverse timeline.

Remember when everyone got so angry about iPhones tracking your location?

At least you could blame Steve Jobs or shut them off.

With these systems, you won't even know you're being tracked until you're in court or facedown on the hood of your car with a lawyer or cop telling you, not asking you, where you were on the night a particular crime was committed.

The evidence will be against you, whether it was you in the car, whether they had the right to collect the data in the first place, or whether the camera OCRed the wrong letters in someone else's plate and reported that it was your car, not a gangster's, pulling away from the scene of a drive-by.

What a shame. You always seemed like you were so not a murderer.

Ah well. Pictures don't lie...

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