Automatic License Plate Readers Are The Latest Neighborhood Perk

from the neighborhood-watch-on-electronic-steroids dept

Round-the-clock surveillance is becoming a part of everyday life here in the United States. Unfortunately, unlike CCTV-infested London, the steady influx of cameras in the US is the result of police-private company partnerships and the efforts of friends and neighbors.

Ring, owned by Amazon, has nailed down 95% of the growing doorbell/camera market. Its growth is largely due to its partnerships with law enforcement agencies which acquire the cameras for cheap and hand them out for free to residents. The implication is that the recipient of a free doorbell camera will be willing to help out law enforcement in the future… or at least share footage regularly on Ring’s snitch app so cops don’t have to ask for it.

Ring’s control of the market comes paired with control of law enforcement agencies. Ring writes press releases, provides portals for footage requests, and requires cops to run statements and comments past the company before releasing them to the public.

A doorbell camera is the obvious extension of private surveillance. People have been installing their own security cameras for years. But prior to this, installing security cameras didn’t involve picking up the tech from cop shops. However, the new growth market for homegrown surveillance uses tech that used to be exclusively reserved for government agencies: automatic license plate readers.

ALPRs are the new peering through the blinds suspiciously. Entities with an interest in knowing everything that goes on in their neighborhoods are the early adopters. Who thinks they need to be all up in everybody’s business? Well, it’s entities that have been all up in everybody’s business for years: homeowners associations and those residing in gated communities. The justification is crime prevention, but it’s happening in neighborhoods where crime is the exception, rather than the rule. And it’s being instituted without the explicit permission of those now involuntarily participating in private surveillance projects.

It’s not just for HOAs and gated communities any more. A new report by Sam Dean of the LA Times shows ALPRs are being deployed by any private citizen with the cash on hand and the desire to do so. Again, claims of safety and crime prevention are being made, but the ALPR installation covered here is deployed in one of Los Angeles’ safest suburbs. (h/t Elizabeth Joh)

On a quiet road south of Ventura Boulevard, two cameras on a pole watch over the road, facing opposite directions.

A block away, another brace of cameras sit sentry. Together, they constantly film the two points of entry to a closed loop of public streets in Sherman Oaks.

Nearby, on a dual-screen setup in the basement of his hillside home, Robert Shontell pulls up hundreds of snippets of footage captured by the cameras earlier that day. Each shows a car, time-stamped and tagged with the make, model, paint color and license plate.

In this case, residents pooled funds to buy the cameras. Flock Safety is the pioneer in this domestic surveillance sector and its cameras run about $2,000 per, including use of its plate-cataloging software. The company addresses privacy concerns by stating that only purchasers have access to photos and footage. But that’s essentially meaningless when camera users are free to turn it over to anyone they want to, including law enforcement. Also, there’s not much “privacy” when 30 different households have access to the footage, as is the case here.

Flock’s head of marketing says its cameras are solving “two crimes a day.” I suppose that’s better than none at all, but this aggressive push for regular people to adopt and deploy surveillance tech against friends, neighbors, and anyone else who might wander into these neighborhoods ultimately makes it easier for the government to roll out more pervasive surveillance of its own. It’s pretty hard to argue against the government’s encroachment when you’re in the encroachment business yourself.

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Comments on “Automatic License Plate Readers Are The Latest Neighborhood Perk”

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Anonymous Coward says:


For a while I was running OpenALPR on a modified dash cam for curiosity sake.
I was curious the number of cars I ran into on a daily basis. At the end of the project I was surprised at the amount of information I was able to gleam from little more than an hour or two of tinkering and a month or so of data collected. This was a few years back, I bet it’s even easier & cheaper now.

A-Sbeve-Or-Two (profile) says:

Re: Re: Heh...

…they managed to fit more characters on an American license plate than is possible.

The company that made that license plate has some explaining to do, lol.

To be fair, Stephen, I was honestly trying to make a clever witty technology joke because the main article talked about the license plate readers. And I accidentally made a mistake. I meant to put CTRL instead of CNTRL (silly me.) I looked up the abbreviation afterwards but by then it was too late. It sucks that I can’t edit my own comments to fix my mistakes.

A-Sbeve-Or-Two (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Heh...

I can imagine that somewhere down the line they’re gonna need an extra digit, if two unrelated people accidentally get the same license plate because the 9-digit usage doesn’t provide for unlimited license plate combinations (usually there’d be a limit somewhere down the line). Eventually they’ll have to add that 10th digit (probably sometime in the future) to make it harder to have two of the same license plate numbers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

…they managed to fit more characters on an American license plate than is possible.

You people are assuming that the ALPRs only read the plate, but I have to question that. How likely is it that the companies do the extra work to make it resistant to shenanigans? Their target market (cops, HOAs etc.) won’t try to break the thing; they’ll scan some normal cars, see it works, and put it into production.

I’ll guess most ALPR companies half-assed it and will use whatever largish text is near the middle of a roughly car-sized object.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Two crimes

My guess is that these ALPR’s are about as accurate as the reverse warrants for cellphones in the area. The don’t tell anyone who was driving, or what they were doing. They merely say that that some license plate was in the area at a specific time on a specific day.

Now that might help LEO’s to some possible leads, but it doesn’t mean that any of those leads, lead to the culprits. The culprits might have walked to the crime, or stolen someone else’s license plate to do the job and switched them back shortly after the crime. Or the car was stolen, or the car just happened to be driving by near the time the crime was happening. Or the car was borrowed, or the ALPR misread the plate due to some dirt on the plate, or something else that is not nefarious.

I cannot see any actual help here. There is some possible help, but no actual help.

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