Recently, we did an article on red light cameras. Well, the 1984 Orwellian nature continues in Florida. This time with license plate readers. Starting July 1st, just a few days from now, numerous counties across Florida will implement the new LPRs. [see slide show for locations.]
Law enforcement agencies are using license plate readers to build a giant database of publicly available personal information—all obtained legally, without warrants. In 2011 the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, which coordinates information-sharing between law enforcement agencies, signed a contract with Silicon Valley-based defense contractor Palantir to create a database capable of storing 100 million license plate records.
Florida also has implemented this technology.
Computer security consultant Michael Katz-Lacabe requested a record from the city of San Leandro, of times license plate readers had snapped his car. He found 112 instances—including a photo of him and his young daughters getting out of his Prius.
Meanwhile in Germany, a serial drive-by shooter responsible for firing at least 762 shots at vehicles and buildings since 2008, was identified in April thanks to a license plate reader system specifically set up to nab him. According to local official Edgar Wagner, 60 million to 80 million photos, with metadata attached, were taken of innocent people in order to catch the lone suspect.
Once again we must weigh the privacy of the individual against the protection of society.
This constant photographing of private, innocent citizens can be considered a violation of rights; causing multiple cases throughout America slowly working to the Supreme Court.
However, there’s a weird hitch for privacy advocates who would challenge comprehensive license plate surveillance: License plates are displayed on the outside of vehicles as they travel in public spaces, the information is technically public, cite law enforcement.
How do license plate readers work?
To understand the implications of license plate readers, both the benefits and the potential for abuse, it helps to understand the technology. The data for these programs is generated by Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR), a technology that uses cameras and software to find and record license plate numbers. The cameras usually operate on both the infrared and visual light spectrum, allowing the system to operate during day or night. A processing unit takes the image from the camera; using algorithms isolates the numbers from visual noise. The plate numbers are then stored, time stamped, and tagged with a location. [A video is available for viewing at the bottom of article concerning LPRs and their abilities.]
ALPR systems are typically found in three places: next to red light cameras, monitoring the entrances and exits of parking lots, and mounted on police cars. Most of the time, they record the plates of parked cars.
In Iowa City, concerns about passive violation of privacy led to the consideration of a ban on license plate readers. And earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed suit against multiple police municipalities and County Sheriff’s Departments, requesting that the departments reveal information they had gathered using the plate readers.
The ability to pull up years of records on a specific vehicle’s movements is, of course, a tremendous boon to a criminal investigation. However, with the exception of preemptive legislative measures like Iowa City’s proposed ban, it seems unlikely that police will stop using this technology any time soon. The ACLU and EFF case is currently working its way through the Judicial system. The ACLU claims that 85 percent of law enforcement agencies will be using license plate readers by 2015.
How do you feel about license plate readers? Let us know in the comments below.