Automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) is a mass surveillance method that uses optical character recognition on images to read vehicle registration plates. They can use existing closed-circuit television or road-rule enforcement cameras, or ones specifically designed for the task. They are used by various police forces and as a method of electronic toll collection on pay-per-use roads and cataloging the movements of traffic or individuals.
ANPR can be used to store the images captured by the cameras as well as the text from the license plate, with some configurable to store a photograph of the driver. Systems commonly use infrared lighting to allow the camera to take the picture at any time of the day.
In the UK, an extensive (ANPR) automatic number plate recognition CCTV network. Effectively, the police and security services track all car movements around the country and are able to track any car in close to real time. Vehicle movements are stored for 2 years in the National ANPR Data Center to be analyzed for intelligence and to be used as evidence.
In addition to the real-time processing of license plate numbers, similar systems called ALPR systems (Automatic License Plate Recognition) in the US collect (and can indefinitely store) data from each license plate capture. Images, dates, times and GPS coordinates can be stockpiled and can help place a suspect at a scene, aid in witness identification, pattern recognition or the tracking of individuals. Such data can be used to create specialized databases that can be shared among departments or individuals (such as insurers, banks or auto recovery) Specialized databases can also be used to compile personal information on individuals such as journalists suspected gang members, employees of a business, patrons of a bar, etc., and be shared by E-mail or portable flash media.
The Boston Globe had a great article on this topic last week. Here is some of the article. Full article can be found at http://bostonglobe.com/metro/2013/04/08/big-brother-better-police-work-new-technology-automatically-runs-license-plates-everyone/1qoAoFfgp31UnXZT2CsFSK/story.html
Now, automated license plate recognition technology’s popularity is exploding — seven Boston-area police departments will add a combined 21 new license readers during the next month alone — and with that expanded use has come debate on whether the privacy of law-abiding citizens is being violated.
These high-tech license readers, now mounted on 87 police cruisers statewide, scan literally millions of license plates in Massachusetts each year, not only checking the car and owner’s legal history, but also creating a precise record of where each vehicle was at a given moment.
The records can be enormously helpful in solving crimes — but they increasingly make privacy advocates uneasy.
Use of the technology is outstripping creation of rules to prevent abuses such as tracking the movements of private citizens, or monitoring who visits sensitive places such as strip clubs, union halls, or abortion clinics.
A survey of police departments that use automated license readers found that fewer than a third — just 17 out of 53 — have written policies, leaving the rest with no formal standards for who can see the records or how long they will be preserved.
“The worst-case scenario — vast databases with records of movements of massive numbers of people — is already happening,” warns Kade Crockford of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which is pushing for a state law to regulate use of license plate scanners and limit the time departments can routinely keep the electronic records to 48 hours.
The usefulness of the automated license plate reader as an investigative tool springs from the astounding number of license plates the units can scan and record. With an array of high-speed cameras mounted on police cruisers snapping pictures, these systems are designed to capture up to 1,800 plates per minute, even at high speeds and in difficult driving conditions.
Most of the departments that deploy license plate readers use them primarily for traffic enforcement. But the scanners — sometimes called by the acronym ALPR — are also used for missing persons, AMBER alerts, active warrants, and open cases.
While law enforcement officials are enthusiastic, critics can point to alleged abuses:
■ In 2004, police tracked Canadian reporter Kerry Diotte via automated license scans after he wrote articles critical of the local traffic division. A senior officer admitted to inappropriately searching for the reporter’s vehicle in a license scan database in an attempt to catch Diotte driving drunk.
■ Plainclothes NYPD officers used readers to scan license plates of worshipers at a mosque in 2006 and 2007, the Associated Press reported, under a program that was partially funded by a federal drug enforcement grant.
■ In December, the Minneapolis Police Department released a USB thumb drive with 2.1 million license plate scans and GPS vehicle location tags in response to a public records request, raising fears that such releases might help stalkers follow their victims. A few days later, the Minneapolis mayor asked the state to classify license scan data as nonpublic.
ACLU attorney Fritz Mulhauser warned last summer that, within a few years, police will be able to use license scan records to determine whether a particular vehicle “has been spotted at a specific church, union hall, bar, political party headquarters, abortion clinic, strip club, or any number of other locations a driver might wish to keep private.”
“Technology is rapidly moving ahead in terms of our ability to gather information about people,” said Hecht. “We need to have a conversation about how to balance legitimate uses . . . with protecting people’s legitimate expectation of privacy.”
With technology changing so quickly, privacy laws will not be able to keep pace. Scary but true.
And now a little Bowie.