Automatic License Plate Readers Also Gathering Millions Of Facial Photos Daily


Every day in the US, millions of license plate photos are scanned and stored in various third-party databases, accessible by hundreds of law enforcement agencies, including those at the federal level. Privacy concerns have been raised by groups like the EFF and ACLU, but these have been brushed off with two assertions:

1. Driving in public is, by definition, not a private activity.

2. The license plate/location data only identifies a vehicle, not a person.

The first point can’t really be argued. Your expectation of privacy pretty much ends when you start traveling on public streets. But the massive number of plate photos scanned and stored still creates privacy concerns. Most of the photos stored in law enforcement databases have nothing to do with ongoing investigations, and long-term storage of irrelevant plate/location data allows law enforcement to “track” anyone it wants to. Further concerns arise when agencies troll events like political rallies to add plates to their databases. It may not be a privacy violation, but it does raise questions about surveillance of First Amendment-protected activities.

As for the second argument — just cars, not people — that one’s apparently completely bogus.

In addition to tracking license plates, the federal government has been taking and sharing photos of drivers and passengers inside the cars, documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union show.

License plate readers (LPRs) are designed to provide “the requester” with images of license plate vehicle numbers, in addition to “photos of visible vehicle occupants,” one of the newly released documents reads.

Another document obtained by the ACLU reveals the cameras have the ability to “store up to 10 photos per vehicle transaction including 4 occupant photos.”

The reality of the situation doesn’t mesh with law enforcement’s statements. And with ALPR manufacturers like Vigilant Solutions hoping to add facial recognition technology to their products, law enforcement agencies will soon have access to millions of individuals’ photos, a large majority of which aren’t currently under investigation.

The DEA’s database alone holds at least 343 million LPR photos. Other law enforcement agencies are adding millions of shots to these shared databases daily. While the expectation of privacy is lowered in public settings, the millions of photos amassed turn these databases into long-term tracking devices. Surveillance of this scope used to be limited by personnel availability. Now, it’s as easy as leaving camera running for the entire shift — day after day after day. This low-effort process builds easy-to-use “maps” of citizens’ movements — where they work, where they live, which businesses they frequent, where they spend their “off” hours, which doctors they use, etc. And it’s all at the fingertips of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

No law enforcement agencies are willing to talk about the implications of storing millions of “non-hit” photos. Los Angeles law enforcement officials went so far as to claim all captured photos were “relevant” to investigations. What little has been uncovered has been the results of tenacious FOIA requesters or open records lawsuits. The efforts being made to keep this information out of the public eye has very little to do with “protecting law enforcement methods” and everything to do with minimizing the amount of scrutiny or criticism these agencies face.

With the steady improvement of facial recognition technology, law enforcement agencies will soon know not only where your vehicle’s been, but who was in it. The push back against this technology isn’t so much about preventing its use, but preventing its abuse. Storing records unrelated to criminal activity for years is nothing more than stockpiling of data for its own sake — nearly completely divorced from the actual business of enforcing laws.

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Comments on “Automatic License Plate Readers Also Gathering Millions Of Facial Photos Daily”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

two things:
in la florida, it is (supposedly) illegal to have windows tinted beyond -as i recall- something like 40%…
now, you can see cars ALL THE TIME which are obviously beyond that limit, but i doubt much is made of it, unless it is simply piled on other charges if they are stopped for something else…
secondly, we only have rear license plates in florida, and if you have a pickup (as everyone should), simply drive with your tailgate down, should foil most tag cams, but still be visible if a cop is running you down for speeding/whatever…

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Foiling the cameras

I understand that it would be inappropriate to drive wearing my gorilla mask (which does not necessarily mis-identify me) due to limited visibility. But how about wearing my Klingon prosthesis and makeup (no visual implications)?

(Of course putting all that makeup on to run to the store for milk would take more time than the entire round trip.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Foiling the cameras

There are some interesting descriptions of fashion v. FR here (io9). My favorite has always been CV Dazzle, as it’s got a Gibsonian retro-cyberpunk thing going on. (Although I have to admit, dystopian tech-future ain’t nearly as cool in reality as it seemed back when Neuromancer came out.)

Of course, this isn’t even considering the funniest thing of all: the government’s surveillance juxtaposed with its constant screaming about all Muslims being terrorists. After all, they’re driving every single one of us to want to wear burkas.

Anonymous Coward says:

Two takeaways

1. If it can be collected, it probably is and in bulk.

2. Privacy does not exist outside the home and if you use third party services not within it either.

How far will they go? Soon everything observable in public will be logged. Fingerprints, retina scans, the works. Little robots collecting DNA samples from your hair follicles lost during the day. Don’t shave your entire body hair or wear solar shields? Obviously you have no expectation of privacy.

Anonymous Coward says:

When is enough enough? It’s already bad enough on the internet that you can’t go to any site such as this one without being datamined.

Now records are being created without any checks whatever on what you do in the course of your regular activities. This has nothing to do with crime. This is the police state in action. The very thing our forefathers, in writing the Constitution were fearing, no matter the level of technology. The unbridled and unchecked state abusing it’s powers not because it needs to but because it can.

teknosapien (profile) says:

Isn't that the reason he served

He seems to forget that he and his forefathers(along with me and mine) fought for that right to “toss a flag”.
It’s considered free speech.
A right that he served for
And lets face it it’s a 14 year old “kid”, what does he know?

I wonder how he is at his job. a true educator would probably take this as a learning opportunity.
Instead he would rather ruin a kids life.

Anonymous Coward says:

The push back against this technology isn’t so much about preventing its use, but preventing its abuse.

At this point, what’s the difference? The police have made it pretty clear that they have no interest in using the technology only in legitimate ways, so the only way to prevent abuse is unfortunately to completely outlaw their use of the technology.

tqk (profile) says:

Los Angeles law enforcement officials went so far as to claim all captured photos were “relevant” to investigations.

That’s even plausible. Every cop show on TV explains that giving a DNA sample helps to rule out innocents, so it’s in our interest to give it up. Now, with a database of LPR photos they can troll through at their leisure, they can look up our whereabouts to determine whether we were near the scene of a crime or not, to rule us either in or out as potential suspects. Welcome to the 21st Century.

Stephen Wilson Lockstep (user link) says:

Privacy is not anonymity

Forgive my nitpicking on an article that is strongly pro-privacy, but there is a statement that seems to conflate privacy ans anonymity which I’d like to correct.

“[The point] Driving in public is, by definition, not a private activity … can’t really be argued. Your expectation of privacy pretty much ends when you start traveling on public streets.”

I disagree. Privacy is not about hiding. We can and should maintain expectations of privacy when we go about our business in public. Privacy is largely about restraint; one of the fundamental principles of data privacy is that Personal Information ought not to be collected if it is not needed for an express and transparent purpose. The over-collection of number plate data by ANPR systems is a classic sort of systemic privacy breach, and an object lesson in the value and risks of metadata. When I drive in public, I do have an expectation of privacy, insofar as my movements are concerned. I don’t expect my trips to be recorded over long periods of time, and indexed by number plate.

Anonymous Coward says:

You can say there’s no expectation of privacy when you go out in public, but how would you react if someone with a gun came to your door and said “Good evening. I’m from the Government and I need you to fill out this log of every road you drove on today, at what time, and where all you went. Be sure to put your current license plate number on there, and oh, hold still while I take a quick photo of you. I’ll be coming by every day from now on to collect this form and take your picture, so please be ready. No, we can’t tell you what we do with this stuff or how securely stored it is or who else might get access to it, but take our word for it, it’ll help us catch bad guys. Trust us. Oh and tinted auto glass is illegal again, so you’ll have to replace the windows in your truck.”? If you have even a little bit of a problem with it, then tell me again why it’s OK for them to just collect, indefinitely retain, and share that exact same stuff without asking?

Anonymous Coward says:

Does anyone know of any legal cases relating ALPR/FR to GPS tracking by police (SC: US v.Jones, 11th Cir.: US v. Davis)? It strikes me that if ALPR databases can all be linked, and if the recording hardware reaches a high enough density (say, mounted on every street sign), we get the functional equivalent of 24/7 GPS tracking of every single car/person in the country.

This may not be economically feasible yet, but it’s technologically plausible. ALPR records aren’t like single photographs taken in public, they’re more like the frames of a film.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re:

…we get the functional equivalent of 24/7 GPS tracking of every single car/person in the country. This may not be economically feasible yet, but it’s technologically plausible.

If it isn’t stopped laws, court decisions, or (maybe) just public backlash, it’s only a matter of time before it happens. Can you imagine how much law enforcement would love that? And they seem to think that anything that makes their jobs easier is appropriate to do.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Weirdly enough, the thing that bugs me most about this is the use of poor metaphors. Police and ALPR makers keep hyping the “photo in a public space” idea, but the addition of a camera-linking database, to me, makes the “single snapshot” analogy nothing but BS. It’s as stupid as “a smartphone is just an address book” was until Riley corrected it.

Discussions keep dodging (or at least glossing over) the fact that “Which cameras, and at what times, did License Plate X pass on Tuesday” is just as easy to run as “Which License Plate #’s were captured by Camera X on Tuesday.”

Or maybe I’m starting to suffer from some sort of OC focus on a trivial point. Wouldn’t be the first time…

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Discussions keep dodging (or at least glossing over) the fact that “Which cameras, and at what times, did License Plate X pass on Tuesday” is just as easy to run as “Which License Plate #’s were captured by Camera X on Tuesday.”

Or, “which … [black|chinese|muslim|jew|democrat|…] …”

Are we trying to solve/minimize crimes here, or building a tool for the tyrant (who succeeds the current political regime) to abuse?

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I think that people have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the sense that they should be able to expect that nobody is building a database that records their every move throughout the day, even if all of that movement is in public.

I agree. I don’t there is an unqualified “expectation of privacy” when out in public though.

Anonymous Coward says:

As somebody familiar with LPR projects and who has access to a large LPR DB….this article is laughable.
The LPR cameras can’t even ID a plate with 100% accuracy in ideal situations. Now add in angles, weather, blockage, ect
I dare somebody to look through our millions of records and come out with a dozen recognizable faces. Hell most records don’t even HAVE faces of drivers in them. They are the back of cars, hood only, or glare off the window.

Maybe…MAYBE….in a couple decades if the technology matures in a big way it might be possible to capture faces. But as of right now it is nowhere close to that capability.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

..They are the back of cars…

And how about semi-trucks, whose license plate is blocked by the trailer. The trailer has it’s own license plate which may be registered to a different entity than the truck.

And what about traffic signals that have a dome camera on one of them? It’s either a pan/tilt/zoom or one of the new 180 or 360 cameras; both of which require human operation for any effectiveness.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

the point -> O

your head -> O

the POINT was that if the LPR systems can’t even read the plats with good accuracy. AND the very very vast majority of the screen shots don’t even contain faces…how in the holy hell are these shots supposed to be useful for facial recognition? Hint: they are not useful.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

My point -> o

your head -> O

Hey this is fun! I understood your point perfectly and I find it not at all comforting. Do you suppose that this technology will languish and not improve, so that we have nothing to worry about? How good do you think it will be in 10 years? 20 years? How big do you think the databases will be by then? Are you content to wait to address this once the police are already used to 100% surveillance of where everyone goes all the time? I’m not.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

You don’t understand. It’s vital that we accept government practices and pass laws that only take into account technology as it exists at this very moment. That way, there will be no unintended consequences and everything will, without exception, work out for the best down the road. Just like third party doctrine. See?

(I hope this comment doesn’t need an explicit [s], but I am an AC, so…)

david allsebrook (profile) says:

Expectation of privacy while driving

Actually there is a reasonable expectation of privacy while driving or acting in public. Before surveillance technology people were free to record your license plate as the whim took them, but it is reasonable to expect that they would not, without a specific reason pertaining to you. The fact that the cost of recording bulk information has come down through technology doesn’t reduce my expectation that in a free society I will not be preemptively spied upon. It is especially unreasonable for a government to be doing this.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Expectation of privacy while driving

Actually there is a reasonable expectation of privacy while driving or acting in public.

Sort of. There’s no reasonable expectation that nobody will be able to see you, or see where you go. There may be a reasonable expectation that police will not surreptitiously* track your location without a warrant though.

* I don’t mean clever in-person surveillance that you might not notice, I mean this license plate camera sort of thing

Anonymous Coward says:

Public privacy is a matter of priorities

The subject line says it poorly but the idea is that we haven’t had to explicitly identify our privacy rights in public because it has been wildly infeasible to track everyone in public. The cops might invest the resources for one or two high priority targets, e.g., people who are prime suspects for murders, but most people could go about unharrassed by the knowledge that the government didn’t have the resources to track everyone at all times.

Technology is changing that – GPS units are cheap enough now that it would be easy to mandate all new cars built after 2016 include a GPS unit that periodically transmits it location to a central monitoring site. (Mobile data fees paid by the car owner, of course). In fact some area have discussed using it to tie vehicle registration fees to the actual number of miles driven by the vehicle. In both cases the cost is trivial, typically born by the innocent person, and provide the government unimaginable amounts of data.

Going back to “original intent” I keep trying to imagine the writers of the Constitution considering the case of whether the government can force all carriages to include a jump seat where a militia man can ride (for free) to keep track of where the owner travels. I have no doubt that they would emphatically say that that was no acceptable after they lifted their jaws off the ground.

Anonymous Coward says:

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