Roving police cars snap license plate pictures for massive vehicle location databases

Roving police cars snap license plate pictures for massive vehicle location databases

Summary: Big data is working its way down the food chain and into your local police cruiser.


We're all familiar with the roving Google Street View cars. They've been up and down nearly every street, lane, boulevard, and avenue in America -- and across the world. The cars are equipped to take pictures and upload those pictures to the great Googlenet in the sky. Then, after some processing and some delay, when you want to look up an address, you can also see what it looks like, just as if you were standing there on the street.

Let's step it up a notch.

The cars are still there, but instead of being run by Google, they're police cars and parking enforcement vans. Instead of taking pictures of roads and buildings, they're recording license plates and vehicle locations. And instead of that data going to the Googlenet, where the worst that can happen is that Google will try to sell you something through an ad, they go into a vast, mostly unregulated local or state government database -- all designed to find criminals and ticket payment shirkers.

This is a notch above the traffic cameras mounted in intersections, designed to deter dangerous driving behavior. When you're out driving, and you go through a main intersection, there isn't quite the assumption of privacy you have when, say, you're parked outside your doctor's office or in your own driveway.

It's also a notch above the Google Street View cars. Those cars can generally be counted on to take one pass through a neighborhood every few years, at most. They're trying to get an image of the street looks like, not what's on the street. By contrast, police recording vehicles in a given community will always be roaming. They're likely to be able to tell where and when you park and develop much more detailed patterns of your movement.

As it turns out, this kind of street-level license surveillance is happening now and has been for quite some time. The Seattle Police Department has captured millions of license plate images, along with geolocation and time/date data. The Richmond County Sheriff's Department in Georgia is testing a system that can add 1,000 license plates to a central database in ten minutes.

To be fair, it's not like all of us hide where we go. We're all "mayors" in FourSquare and check-in fools in Facebook. But the difference is, we do that when we want to tell people where we are.

This is also a far different game than the metadata aggregation aggravation we've all been having with the NSA over the last few months. First, the NSA is looking for terrorist threats, not ticket payment shirkers. Second, the NSA (despite press reports) has very professional oversight and cross-checks, where a local town's police department might have Buford T. Justice in charge.

And, of course, it's local. While the NSA certainly doesn't care that you're parking in front of Bill's Garage when you work at Al's Garage, the local street cop just might, especially if he's Al's younger brother. More to the point, you might not want to let your neighbors or employer know you're seeing an obstetrician or an HIV/AIDS doctor. You may not be ready to let people know you're pregnant or concerned about AIDS.

In the local community, word gets around. It's highly unlikely that NSA metadata will impact your employability or work and personal relationships unless you're doing something very bad indeed. But if Shirley Thompson in the back office of Harper Valley Police Department happens to see your car in front of something juicy, it's entirely possible that information will be rocketing its way through the next PTA meeting.

Retention is also an issue. Seattle claims they keep photographic license records for 90 days, while Vancouver keeps them for a year. On the one hand, this is so there's time to carefully complete any investigations. But a data trove of millions of photographs stored over an extended period of time by local officials opens the door to substantial abuse.

Finally, there is the Big Brother issue. What happens when all these local community geolocation databases start being shared and turned into big data warehouses for use nationally? At what point does tracking our vehicle movement on public streets become intrusive on our civil rights? And, what about when someone who's not the registered owner is driving the car? Even if someone else (say a kid or a spouse) is behind the wheel, the vehicle owner will be the first person to show up on the cruiser's LCD display.

You all know that I've argued the necessity of aggregate data surveillance on a national level, when conducted under the watchful eyes of federal agencies and officials. Despite what you might read, the vast majority of federal investigative employees are incredibly well trained, incredibly professional, and incredibly patriotic.

But what about all those local municipalities? While many local officers and their departments are also extremely professional, there are also corrupt local governments as well. It's far harder to keep an eye on the roughly 30,000 local governments in the United States than it is to oversee the behavior of a few three-letter agencies.

The big challenge of big data is it's working its way down the food chain. While helpful and powerful and compelling in the right hands, big data in the hands of Buford T. Justice might not be justifiable at all.

Topics: Privacy, Government, Government US


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Political Appointees professional?? REALLY??

    "Second, the NSA (despite press reports) has very professional oversight."

    The author must be kidding.. Political appointees are political appointees because they either gave money (lots of it) to the polititians or they were able to get other people to give money (lots of it) to the polititians.

    The very existance of their position depends upon their ability to keep their paid polititians in power. They will do whatever they have to do to keep their cushy government job with cadillac healthh care that won't be taxed so the likelyhood of the data being abused is astronomical. Especially with a FISA court that can siplmy ignor the 4th Amendment and never have to face any Constitutional Review.
  • and in the UK

    some towns have cameras monitoring all roads in and out. One has been told that it goes beyond reasonable data collection, but that has not stopped a town near me installing them.

    What with this and PRISM etc we are now more monitored than we would have been in East Germany under the STASI.
    • There are plenty of videos

      about cameras in the UK and some solutions by the locals to the seemingly endless intrusions.
  • Yes, we should be concerned

    I have no doubt the Founding Fathers would see this as an invasion of privacy. I will not hold my breath waiting for our dysfunctional Congress to do anything about it, however.
    • Not a Monolith

      The FF were not a single entity. The group was made up of people with many differring opinions. One thing I'm pretty sure of, they would have been against the government freeing the slaves via a single act of the President. They also would have been against non-white non land owning men voting and God Forbid women voting.

      The FF continuing greatness is a myth. They came together, a unique group and time, but that special time only lasted an instant. It's 2013. Let's live today, not in 10,000BC.
      • Bill of Rights

        Read the Bill of Rights and you'll develop a sense of what they (collectively) would have felt on the issue. GTGeek88 is completely correct IMHO.
      • Personal beliefs vs collective beliefs.

        The founders were indeed individuals with differing opinions, but those individual opinions didn't make it into the Bill of Rights or the original Constitution. Those documents were created based on universal truths in order to protect the people of our nation from future abuse by a tyrannical government. They apply as much or more today than when they were originally created.

        The tyrannical government of their day was the monarchy. The tyrannical government of today is our own U.S. government. The founders sought to protect us from governmental abuse of our basic human rights to speak our minds, live our lives without interference or harassment, face our accusers in an unbiased court, and own weapons to protect our families from harm. Their greatness is due to their collective wisdom in recognizing universal truths, not their individual shortcomings as people.

        Ignoring the universal truth in those documents is what has created the police state insanity we live in today. To dismiss their work simply because it's "old" shows nothing but ignorance.
        • re: Personal beliefs vs collective beliefs.

          > Those documents were created based on universal truths
          > in order to protect the people of our nation from future abuse
          > by a tyrannical government.

          Nice fairy tale, that. Can you say Alien and Sedition Acts? They were signed into law by founding father John Adams, a signer of the Declaration.

          Those documents were created based on old-fashioned horse-trading, period.

          > and own weapons to protect our families from harm.

          No. The 2nd Amendment was put in so the federal government couldn't interfere with state militias. At the time of the ratification, this was especially important to slave-economy states in the South because those state militias were used to enforce slavery.

          (After all, any means half a state's population has at its disposal to enslave the other half must include a lot of violence.)

          The thinking on the part of Southern delegates was that the new Fed would try to abolish slavery indirectly by interfering with the militias that made slavery enforceable.
          none none
      • You will never let the RACE card go away....

        Everything BillDem stated of the Constitution and our founding fathers should be stressed for his term of UNIVERSAL TRUTHS (for example MAN would imply both man and woman and yes ALL races as well). Slavery was not part of the Constitution, but everyone has come to accept it as a low point for humanity. Your examples of suffrage need not be continually used as a means to only promote the Democrat party and divide the people of different political viewpoints. In fact the LIBERALS continuous use of the race card has only exacerbated hate not seen in our country since the civil rights movement.
        • So as there is no confusion..

          All of my prior commentary is directed to Regulator1956.
          • Playing cards

            First, I do not join in 1956's comments as it relates to slavery. I would not presume to know how people would have thought more than 200 years ago.

            That said, it is offensive when people rush to claim that any time "race" is mentioned or referred to that it must be the so-called "race card". Under this type of reasoning race could not be discussed unless it is done in empirical or scientific terms. Frankly, the "race card" claims are just above the "outrage" that some feel because they feel that they cannot call someone the n-word.
        • Will the fairy tales never stop??

          > Slavery was not part of the Constitution

          Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution as originally ratified:

          "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, ***three fifths of all other Persons.***"

          The whole number of free persons, and three fifths of all other persons. Who are those "other persons," I wonder?

          To further disabuse the notion that the founders were dealing with "UNIVERSAL TRUTHS" please read the history of the three fifths.

          From Wikipedia:

          "Delegates opposed to slavery generally wished to count only the free inhabitants of each state, but delegates supportive of slavery, on the other hand, generally wanted to count slaves in their actual numbers. Since slaves could not vote, slaveholders would thus have the benefit of increased representation in the House and the Electoral College. The final compromise of counting "all other persons" as only three-fifths of their actual numbers reduced the power of the slave states relative to the original southern proposals, but increased it over the northern position."
          none none
  • Plate scanners

    Plate scanners have been around for years now and not every police car has them.

    When a police car does have them, you can see the mounted near the and rear window on both sides of the car.

    Is this shady? Possibly but, I've always seen it as just a means for finding defaulting offenders.
    • There is always the possiblity of abuse of power

      and all government is susceptible to that.
  • NSA vs. Local Gov: Both the same and different

    Differences: In a very small town, they have been doing this for quite some time, without cameras or big data. Just like Andy Griffith roaming the streets noticing who is parked at the doctor's office. So for the very small towns, this doesn't change anything. For larger towns, then it'll be harder to correlate a license plate/vehicle to a particular person without looking it up. Looking it up means it is tracked in a database (I build web applications and we track everything a user does). I live in a larger small town (60,000). This is large enough that they would need to be photographing plates and parked cars to track people, but it is also large enough that they'd have to put in quite a bit of effort to use the data for non-police work. If they are tracking a person, this data could be very useful. So I can see why they would want it. As far as I know, they do not currently do this.

    Same: Just as the NSA needs oversight, which it generally has, the local government needs its own oversight. This is dependent on people to truly evaluate who they elect for local offices and to participate in local government. Sitting back and doing nothing leaves room for abuses to occur.
  • if only...

    we had all these awesome tools in the good old STASI / NKVD times, the defenders of freedom on the other side of the iron curtain would habe labeled all of us a police state!
  • Roving police surveillance of license plates

    Sadly, this is the inevitable outcome of technology that can instantly record, locate and store what used to be private, even trivial information. If the police didn't do this, individuals and corporations can legally photograph, record, describe, etc. what can be seen in public. They can't see inside your home (yet). So, if Big Brother doesn't spy on our activities using license plate readers, someone will find a market for this and probably already have.

    Won't be long before some entrepreneur will come up with a plate that can change its look at a moment's notice, just wait and see.
    Mr. Science
    • IR LED Array

      Or, you could create a custom license plate holder that blinds the camera using Infrared LED's. Even a couple of button clusters on either side of the plate would be enough to totally obscure it from IR cameras.

      See also: anti-surveillance LED hat, very similar.

      This is not to say that it won't flag you immediately as a person-of-interest. Consult a lawyer.
  • Recording people w/o consent

    People do not like to be recorded without their consent. Just ask the Poparotisi(sp) who get punched out by celebrities. Andy Griffith's observations aside there is a huge difference between the observations of one eagle-eyed, small town police officer and the collaboration of these databases across the entire country.

    The potential for abuse here demands that before any such local database is created a policy is adapted at the state level as to whether to do it at all followed by parameters, retention and oversight.