Terrorist-Fighting License Plate Readers Just Mobile Revenue Generators Cruising Poor Neighborhoods

from the gotta-spend-(public)-money-to-take-money-(from-the-public) dept

We know what automatic license plate readers are good for: collecting massive amounts (billions of records) of plate/location data housed by private companies and accessed by law enforcement for indefinite periods of time. What we don’t know is how effective ALPRs are at fighting/investigating crime.

George Joseph at Citylab has done some digging into the effectiveness of license plate readers and hasn’t found much that justifies the expense, much less the constant compilation of plate info.

Last month, the Bay Area’s UASI released ALPR data from the Central Marin Police Authority showing that only .02% of the nearly 4 million license plates tracked over October of 2015 through April of this year resulted in matches to any police “hot list” databases. The data indicate that zero “known or suspected terrorists” have been tracked using ALPRs, and that only a handful of other matches related to other hot-list criteria.

Why the mention of “terrorists?” Well, like most other high-tech law enforcement gear, the funding and deployment of these tools relies heavily on a narrative that never pans out: the neverending War on Terror. UASI stands for “Urban Areas Security Initiative” — a DHS grant program meant to better equip law enforcement for handling terrorism/terrorists. To secure grants to pay for ALPRs, Stingrays, 1033 program supplies, etc., all law enforcement has to do is insert “because terrorism” somewhere in the requisition form. Existential angst — and every government agency’s natural desire to stay well-funded — takes care of the rest.

But in reality, ALPRs aren’t catching terrorists. They’re not even catching dangerous criminals. Use of ALPRs has increased dramatically over the past decade, but there’s not much to show for it other than millions upon millions of “non-hit” snapshots. Instead of bringing down terrorists, drug traffickers, auto theft rings, and kidnappers, ALPRs are being used to troll low-income neighborhoods. (Oakland, CA: Picture/data by Dave Maass, Jeremy Gillula, and EFF.)

Law enforcement officials continue to claim ALPRs are being used to target “major criminal activities.” Maybe so, but there’s been a troubling push by municipalities and private companies to turn plate readers into roaming revenue generators.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation found, several municipalities in Texas… have sparked controversy for allowing police to team up with private-sector companies to work like mobile debt collectors.

In places like Guadalupe County, the City of Orange, and the City of Kyle, Vigilant, a for-profit technology firm, gives police free license-plate readers and creates its own “hot list” for police, using police records on individuals with outstanding court fines. In exchange, police with license-plate readers identify drivers with outstanding fines during their patrols, offering them a trip to jail or the option to pay the original court fee (plus a 25 percent markup, all of which goes to Vigilant).

This budget/profit-driven approach leads directly to ALPRs spending a disproportionate amount of time roaming low-income neighborhoods where unpaid fines and fees are often more prevalent. What’s touted as a high-tech solution to serious criminal activity is being used to collect on unpaid parking tickets and unregistered vehicles. DHS anti-terrorism dollars are being converted into city budget enhancers. The “hot lists” used to direct law enforcement activity are routing officers away from dangerous criminal activity and turning them into glorified meter maids and revenue agents. Who needs to worry about terrorists when low-level scofflaws with unpaid parking tickets are more likely to generate income on the spot?

This is what’s being done with millions of records controlled by private companies and governed by a patchwork collection of inadequate minimization and data destruction policies. Rather than make cities safer, they’re only serving to make cities slightly richer. And in doing so, ALPRs are making policing — especially the sort that actually serves the community — a dusty relic of a bygone era.

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Comments on “Terrorist-Fighting License Plate Readers Just Mobile Revenue Generators Cruising Poor Neighborhoods”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Extortion by any other name...

In exchange, police with license-plate readers identify drivers with outstanding fines during their patrols, offering them a trip to jail or the option to pay the original court fee (plus a 25 percent markup, all of which goes to Vigilant).

“Yeah, you did owe $100, but now you owe $125. Actually let’s make that $150, there was a movie I wanted to pick up after work, and I could use some extra for snacks as well.”

For-profit police work inevitably results in a switch from preventing/stopping crimes to profiting from it, whether directly or indirectly. It also leads to priorities being shifted away from severity of the crime to how much they stand to gain from it. Assault? Not likely to be that profitable. Speeding ticket, unpaid court fines? Those have money on the line, and are much more likely to receive more attention as a result.

The problem is that none of those involved have any incentive to put a stop to extortion under cover of ‘police work’.

-The police involved gain an easy, no-strings-attached source of funding.
-The company providing the hardware gets a cut of the profits.
-The city gets a steady source of ‘free’ income and can claim that they’re doing it to be ‘tough on crime’.
-The state doesn’t have to worry as much about throwing money at the police force, and can shift funds to other personal projects.
-The government gets to crow about how the programs are so very effective at fighting criminals/terrorists/communists, allowing them to justify the existence of the programs.

And of course anyone that questions said programs is smeared as being ‘soft on crime’ and/or caring more about those that break the law than the poor innocent public that the programs are protecting them from.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Extortion by any other name...

How many methods of extortion does the government now possess?

1) Civil asset forfeiture and keeping at least part of the money even when the asset is found innocent
2) Charging non citizens overseas with crimes
3) License plate readers tracking horrific criminals who owe a pittance of an unpaid ticket
4) Pulling people over for traffic violations even when none occurred
5) Shooting unarmed people claiming ‘fear for ones life’ to keep the hordes inline
6) Failing to disclose all that needs to be disclosed by the prosecution in order to threaten greater charges if a guilty plea is not entered
7) Money in politics where corporations can buy the laws they want instead of the laws the constituents want
8) Political parties who pressure legislators to vote their way or be gone

What else?

Anonymous Coward says:

ALPRs aren’t going to get any more difficult or expensive. A person that lives near the entrance of my subdivision made his own and he logs all traffic into and out of the neighborhood. It’s actually kind of nice – some packages were being stolen and he was able to give the police a list of license plate numbers that passed his house on those days.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I like the idea of individual citizens having ALPRs for their streets — and if the police want info, they can subpoena a specific person’s records, which will be tossed after a negative hit or the case is closed.

To me, this is the way it should be done.

Instead, we’ve got a few ALPR corporations monitoring everything and gaining access to police info, while the police have unfettered access to ALL this information, even though most of it has no bearing on what they’re investigating.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

What enforcement? This isn’t ‘enforcement of laws’ it’s driving around looking for a quick buck from people with overdue fines, time that could be spend more productively doing pretty much anything else.

Unless the cities in which they’re trolling for cash are really that lacking in serious crime they have better things to do than drive around looking at licence plates, as time spent engaged in the latter is time not spent on the former.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Law abiding citizens don't benefit from the enforcement of laws?

My math may be wrong, but .02% is the same as 1 in 5000. How do you justify the police and a private company tracking 4999 vehicles locations to get 1 hit on a debt? Imagine the debt is $250. During 1 shift, a law enforcement vehicle drives around for 8 hours collecting plates at a rate of maybe 10 per minute (1 every 6 seconds to allow for slower driving). Thats 600 per hour or about 5000 in 9.5 hours. The officer costs the city with all benefits $40.00 per hour. So the cost to collect $250 is $320 (8 hour shift) plus $60 more from the following 1.5 hours.

Are the citizens benefiting from the enforcement of laws?

When Pigs FLY says:

For Profit polcing-or else!

When pigs fly….from my cold dead fingers and all that jingoism make for a delusional population.

Just a reminder from 2013 about how Xkeyscore etc is used with Flying Pig, StormBrew and a few other programs to drum up state sponsored, for-profit technology theft, and prosecution schemes for the Five Eyes partners:


Remember activist John Lang, from Fresno CA-the guy who died in his burning house as firefighters sat a block away? He was followed for seven years after he reported these LP readers were targeting the poor in the parking lots of Home Depot, and Walmart.

And if you look at Buzzfeeds excellent and comprehensive mapping of where the DHS/FBI/CIA planes are circling above Merican cities-it’s stunning, and blatantly targeting the poor as well-not a hole lotto flights over Vermonters, or Montana; and none over certain Texas ranches.

If you look at large cities, these circling planes clealy, and beyond any reasonable doubt, deliberately avoid cirling above the neighborhoods of ‘the halves’ and the maps are like literal targets above the heads of the have nots.

Whatever says:


Fucking cops, heading to where criminals are and actually doing something about them. Holy crap, next they will give up the donuts!

“If you look at large cities, these circling planes clealy, and beyond any reasonable doubt, deliberately avoid cirling above the neighborhoods of ‘the halves’ and the maps are like literal targets above the heads of the have nots.”

How about “over the areas with high crime and away from the areas with low crime”? See, the narrative plays both ways. If you overlay the Oakland income map with the Oakland crime map, you will notice almost a perfect correlation. It’s just one of those things. Police need to work the areas where they are more likely to find crime, criminals, and criminal activity. They aren’t going to knock down too much crime if they are patrolling gated communities and such, are they?

As for the main story, license plate readers to fight terrorism is a long stretch, but any funding is funding and local departments will do what they can to get it. Taking the tools and using them for some good (dealing with the massive amounts of unpaid fines, unlicensed cars, and outstanding warrants) is not such a bad thing in the scheme of things.

GEMont (profile) says:

None so blind...

Hmmm… one has to wonder WHY anyone would think that the police departments of America – you know, the guys who took more money from Americans than the criminals did last year – would utilize ANY technology that was not specifically designed in such a way that it would increase police department revenue at the expense of the poorest members of American Society.

After all, that is exactly how all For-Profit Police Forces work and anything that will make the job easier or increase the amount of cash available for “confiscation”, is absolutely certain to be utilized extensively.

Ask the Russians, the Chinese, or any of the myriad dictators that American tax-payer money supports around the world.

And in case you thought that the Police were there to capture criminals, well, the police know that should they capture and incarcerate too many crooks, that their budgets would be cut and they would have fewer excuses to employ technology that officially “catches terrorists and other bad guys.”

Everything is going exactly as planned. 🙂

Anonymous Coward says:

only half the story ....

Tim Cushing forgot to mention what happens after these scanners find a car with an expired registration or unpaid parking ticket, or perhaps even a civil lien (such as a garage might submit on from a bounced check on an oil change). In many jurisdictions police will promptly tow and impound the car, racking up fees grossly in excess of the amount of the original unpaid debt. Cars often end up being auctioned off by police because the owners can’t afford to pay the accumulating impoundment fees and the debt can soon become more than the car is worth. (and even the forced sale of the car does not relieve owners of the debt — police will still come after them over those trumped-up bills.)

And there is no sanctuary on private property, as many cities have passed laws that allow police free access to find, tow, and impound cars from privately owned parking lots, such as shopping malls and parking garages.

It’s another giant cash cow to milk, cities and police are eager to maintain this racket of draconian fines and “service charges” that extracts disproportional amounts of revenue from the people who can least afford to pay.

John85851 (profile) says:

What are police doing

The main question to ask is whether police are scanning plates as they’re doing other things (as one poster said) or if their primary mission is to drive around scanning plates? If this is their primary mission, is it really a good use of resources?

But this brings up an obscene incentive program: at the end of the month, which officer looks better? The one who spent 3 weeks investigating a crime and was able to determine that a victim was killed by accident (which is good police work)? Or the officer who roamed the streets and brought in $50,000 in unpaid fines to the department? After a few months of this, why wouldn’t every officer want the cushy job of driving around, scanning plates, bringing in income, and then getting “officer of the month” awards for it?

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