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

Big data is working its way down the food chain and into your local police cruiser.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

Editorial standards