Vermont's Automatic License Plate Readers: 7.9 Million Plates Captured, Five Crimes Solved

from the the-finest-in-haystacking-technology dept

The sales pitch for automatic license plate readers is how great they are at helping cops solve crimes. From hunting down stolen cars to tracking pedophiles across jurisdictions, ALPRs supposedly make policing a breeze by gathering millions of time/date/location records every single day and making it all available to any law enforcement agency willing to buy the software and pay the licensing fees.

The systems come with civil liberties baggage -- privacy issues that aren't completely articulable, at least not in terms of what the courts have held to contain sufficient expectations of privacy. A single photo of a car on a public road isn't a privacy violation. But what about dozens or hundreds of photos that more resemble a passive tracking system than a set of public snapshots? That's a bit more of a gray area -- one that hasn't been fully explored by the courts at this point. Adjacent decisions notwithstanding, ALPRs are mildly intrusive and have troubling implications due to their capabilities, but at this point, they still operate within the confines of the Constitution.

So, if civil liberties are still intact, what's the next point of attack? Maybe it's the alleged efficiency. Are law enforcement agencies getting their money's worth?

It's a trick question. First and foremost, it's the public's money paying for these. In many cases, DHS grants have paid for ALPRs, with local agencies name-checking terrorism and extremism to increase the odds of obtaining funds. Even when paid for out-of-pocket, it's still the public footing the bill.

The systems aren't cheap. And from what VPR (NPR Vermont) has uncovered, they're not really worth the expense. (via Digital Fourth)
Over the past five years, law enforcement agencies in Vermont have invested more than $1 million in technology that gathers millions of data points every year about the whereabouts of vehicles across the state.

Yet even with the millions of scans, the system has not led to many arrests or breakthroughs in major criminal investigations, and it hasn’t led to an increase in the number of tickets written for the offenses the technology is capable of detecting.
No one sells a city council (or the general public) on the wonders of ALPRs by highlighting how many unregistered vehicles might be ticketed or pointing out other mundane traffic enforcement benefits they might provide. Probably just as well, considering these systems have had no discernible effect in these areas.

It's the "big ticket" crimes that sell ALPRs and push them past the complaints of those concerned about citizens' privacy and civil liberties. Kidnapping, auto theft, child pornographers, terrorism, etc. These are the sort of thing that put lead in legislators' collective pencils, stirring them to approve funding or sign off on grant requests, and so on. How do Vermont's ALPRs stack up against capital-C "crime?"
In the 18 months leading up to Jan. 1, 2013, the 61 license plate readers operating in the state at the time did a lot of recording. A VPR study of public information from local, state and federal law enforcement showed that during that time period, police across the state logged 7.9 million license plates and stored them in a central, statewide database along with the time and location they were scanned.

Despite the financial investment in the systems, they were helpful in solving fewer than five crimes in 2013. The number of tickets written for driving with a suspended license and driving with an expired registration (two violations that ALPRs can detect) hasn’t gone up since the technology was introduced in mid-2009.
Millions of plates. Five (5) crimes solved. Number of tickets issued flat.

So, what do you do? As a legislator who approved funding for this, do you accept this as part of the learning curve or do you demand more from the technology? Do you tell the public, "We appreciate your input but feel that a literal handful of successful criminal investigations far outweighs any privacy issues or budgetary concerns"?

An interview with an officer who uses the ALPR system adds some nuance to the discussion, including the fact that law enforcement's civil liberties precautions contribute to the perceived inefficiency of the system. But underneath it all, it's viewed as just another "tool" for local law enforcement to use, albeit one that can't seem to pull its own weight. No one wants to say the equipment is non-essential or possibly redundant, but the officer interviewed (Sergeant Cram) makes this damning statement.
Despite the $25,000 tool, Cram says the majority of the Winooski Police Department’s traffic stops are still done the old-fashioned way, with officers stopping drivers for infractions like rolling through a stop sign or failing to yield at a crosswalk.

Still, Cram says the federally-funded ALPR is a valuable tool, even though he doesn’t think the city would have put up $25,000 of its own money to buy one.
The city wouldn't have ended up with one if the DHS wasn't giving them away. That's how extraneous this "tool" is. The lack of successful criminal investigations backs this up. The fact that traffic enforcement has remained stagnant even with the addition of several million plate scans per year is the final nail in the coffin.

No one -- at least not in Vermont -- needs this technology. But if someone else is willing to pay, they'll take it. And they'll use it. And years down the road, they'll likely still have nothing to show for it but a massive database tracking the movement of millions of non-criminals.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Oct 2014 @ 3:45pm

    Free lunch

    The initial investment may be *free*, but what about the maintenance, training, and resources needed to maintain it? The only winners here are the manufacturers who now have a steady revenue stream.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Rick Caird, 31 Oct 2014 @ 11:52am

      Re: Free lunch

      And, those cameras are expensive (as I recall $30K/per) and they go down frequently. There is also the networking requirement which usually means wireless and outdoor grade wireless routers

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Chris Brand, 30 Oct 2014 @ 3:50pm

    Five isn't "fewer than five"

    "they were helpful in solving fewer than five crimes in 2013"
    Seems likely that the answer is actually "somewhere between none and four", with some debate as to which of those four count. Otherwise, you'd think they'd state the actual number.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 30 Oct 2014 @ 3:58pm

      Re: Five isn't "fewer than five"

      Clearly they can't give the actual number for 'National Security: Because Terrorists!(tm)' reasons, as if criminals knew how completely useless the system was at anything more than tracking non-criminals, it would embolden them to commit even more crimes. /s

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Get off my cyber-lawn! (profile), 30 Oct 2014 @ 3:55pm

    A better use of taxpayer money

    would be POWERBALL tickets.....the odds of picking the numbers appear to be better than those of actually catching a criminal using this system!!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Oct 2014 @ 4:06pm

    driving with a suspended license and driving with an expired registration (two violations that ALPRs can detect)

    "Who is driving the car" is not determined by the license plate. Why would someone think an ALPR would be better at it than a red light camera?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 30 Oct 2014 @ 4:54pm

      Re:

      What makes you think they care about accuracy? Fighting a ticket or fine takes money, and it takes time, most people will just pay rather than deal with the hassle of contesting it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 30 Oct 2014 @ 8:29pm

        Re: Re:

        Traffic violations can make your issuance rates go up. I've had to fight off 5 tickets this year because of bogus tickets being slapped on my car.

        For example, I was parked in one place that was clearly marked as a no parking zone from the hours of 7am-9am yet I got ticketed even though I parked there at around 11am. It was even noted on the ticket that it was issued between the hours of 11am-12pm. Yet they expect me to play stupid and pay up?

        I don't think so!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 30 Oct 2014 @ 8:35pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          I swear, in the cities...Most of the court time in certain areas is taken up by law abiding citizens fighting bogus tickets. This is most evident in areas consisting of upper class citizens.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 31 Oct 2014 @ 11:25am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            I haven't needed to in quite some time so things may have changed, but up here in Canada we have what's called the Crown Procescutor. When you're going up for a ticket in court and have compelling evidence to fight your case you can bring it in front the the crown prosecutor (basically a meeting in an office) and they will likely compromise for you or throw your ticket out.

            This practice was brought forth to keep court cases down to only the one that really needed to be heard before a judge and keeping mistakes or things that can be logically talked out from seeing court and clogging the system/time/money of everyone.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              That One Guy (profile), 31 Oct 2014 @ 4:11pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              That system needs to be spread to other countries so very badly, though given it would likely put a good number of lawyers out of business, I imagine they would fight like mad to block it.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Michael Price, 24 Nov 2014 @ 2:55pm

            Re: Fighting bogus tickets

            "This is most evident in areas consisting of upper class citizens."
            Because the poor just eat it. But hey statists, tell me again how concerned you are for the "disadvantaged".

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Oct 2014 @ 4:22pm

    but those 5 criminals would have gotten away with their crimes and probably others as well!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Oct 2014 @ 4:32pm

    How long until the license plate reader database is cross-referenced with the vehicles belonging to individuals who are considered to likely be carrying large amounts of cash in order to enable law enforcement to conduct a random stop and happen upon some assets to seize, you know, because of drug-trafficking terrorist child pornography!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 Oct 2014 @ 8:52pm

      Re:

      They don't need that. There's a little thing called Civil Forfeitures which basically allows cops to place anything you own under arrest...including your couch.

      I know it sounds out-landish, but it's affecting over 60 thousand people per year all of which who have not been convicted of a crime. In other words, a cop has the legal authority to rob you fucking blind without due process.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 31 Oct 2014 @ 12:13am

        Re: Re:

        That's actually exactly what I was referring to. I'm suggesting that the police might at some point try to use the license plate database to specifically target those likely to be carrying large amounts of cash for the purposes of civil forfeiture, rather than having to stop random people and guess who might be likely to carry large amounts of cash.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Kenneth Michaels, 30 Oct 2014 @ 5:06pm

    Who needs cameras when a phone app will do?

    Every cop just needs to download this smart app and let the cloud do the rest!

    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=nvlsmcclient.apis

    That app is for law enforcement only. When will we get an app for law abiding citizens?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 Oct 2014 @ 5:10pm

      Sharing is Caring

      I love this quote from the app description:

      "All LPR data acquired by the NVLS Mobile Companion may be shared with 10's of thousands of already registered and active Law Enforcement NVLS users. The NVLS network of LPR based information sharing has proven to be impactful for thousands of LEAs and LEOs across the country."

      How about an app just for tracking law enforcement license plates?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 Oct 2014 @ 5:13pm

      Re: Who needs cameras when a phone app will do?

      When will we get an app for law abiding citizens?

      What's this "law-abiding citizen" you are talking about? Is that a euphemism for closet criminals?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Oct 2014 @ 7:35pm

    Just In Case (tm).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Paraquat (profile), 30 Oct 2014 @ 7:54pm

    What were the five crimes that were solved?

    Just wondering what the five crimes were. Smoking a joint? Spitting on the sidewalk? Failure to file a tax return?

    Inquiring minds want to know.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Oct 2014 @ 8:15pm

    Perhaps the problem doesn't lie with the technology, but the mental capacities and social stability of officers:

    http://abcnews.go.com/US/court-oks-barring-high-iqs-cops/story?id=95836

    Apparently, cadets with high IQs are denied completion...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 30 Oct 2014 @ 9:52pm

      Re:

      'But New London police interviewed only candidates who scored 20 to 27, on the theory that those who scored too high could get bored with police work and leave soon after undergoing costly training.'

      Wait, that's the excuse they use, 'they might get bored and leave'? Seriously? That would be ridiculously easy to deal with, just set a cost for the training, and then have each month/year of employment with the police count towards paying that back. If they stay employed long enough(5 years perhaps), then the officer breaks even, and can leave if they want without paying anything. If they leave before that for another job, then they have to pay off what's left.

      Voila, no risk of someone taking advantage of free training to pad their resume and leaving right afterwards.

      Honestly, they might as well come out with the actual reason, that they don't want to employ anyone smart enough that they might start asking questions, leave the laughable excuses at home.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Capitan Capitan, 30 Oct 2014 @ 9:07pm

    Success unlocked

    Seriously everything is becoming more and more like a game!, people are just making shit up without any justification at all, funny that makes more fascist laws.

    If we legislate for the edge case we will fuck everyone else.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Felix Atagong (profile), 31 Oct 2014 @ 3:14am

    One chance in one million and a half...

    Seems about my odds being laid on a Friday evening, I'll take it anytime!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Oct 2014 @ 6:34am

    Not to worry

    No problem, with the RFID chips they are putting into license plates, they won't need the ALPRs any more.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jablonski, 31 Oct 2014 @ 12:00pm

    It's not the LPRs on their own that are bad, although that is bad enough. It's that commercial services are aggregating the LPR data and selling that to cops. So while one jurisdiction may have some record of your presence, all they need to do is pay a nominal fee to be able to track you (albeit still in patchwork fashion) around all the jurisdictions.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    GEMont (profile), 31 Oct 2014 @ 3:43pm

    Welcome to Amerika - the Home of the Watched

    "...a massive database tracking the movement of millions of non-criminals"

    And that is the actual purpose of the devices, in a nut-shell.

    Run together with all the other databases from other units across Amerika, it gives somebody a really nice computer generated panorama of where everyone goes, when and for how long, every day.

    The blackmail possibilities alone would pay for the equipment in five years... had the AIP actually paid for it out of their own pocket, instead of making taxpayer's foot the bill as usual.

    AIP = Assholes In Power

    And don't get me wrong, this is indeed being done specifically for security purposes.

    The security of the 1% that is.

    ---

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Nov 2014 @ 3:14pm

    It's about control...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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