Automatic License Plate Readers Also Gathering Millions Of Facial Photos Daily

from the THE-DATABASE-IS-MADE-OF-PEOPLE! dept

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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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2015 @ 4:06pm

    Due to a medical necessity, all my windows are really tinted.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2015 @ 5:27am

      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...

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2015 @ 4:14pm

    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.)

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

    • icon
      Gracey (profile), 13 Feb 2015 @ 5:03am

      Re: Foiling the cameras

      A wig, hat, sunglasses and clown nose come time mind ... imagine 4 of those riding around in the same car.

      ... gives me the screaming-meemies thinking about seeing that multiple times a day.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2015 @ 4:12pm

        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.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2015 @ 4:17pm

    I have visions of humans in the future, when all jobs are taken by robots, spending their entire lives watching the entire lives of previous humans and eventually dying of boredom.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2015 @ 4:47pm

    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.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2015 @ 4:51pm

    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.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2015 @ 3:18am

      Re:

      What is really really frustrating, is that back then it was obvious to anyone what was happening........now they do everything in the background in secret making sure that nobody see's them so folks dont realise their doing it

      Who.the.f.gave.them.the.right


      Viva la fking revolution

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

  • icon
    DOlz (profile), 12 Feb 2015 @ 4:57pm

    Progress?

    Looks like were moving past “1984” and into Jack Williamson’s “With Folded Hands” territory.

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

  • identicon
    teknosapien, 12 Feb 2015 @ 6:36pm

    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.

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

  • identicon
    AnonCow, 12 Feb 2015 @ 7:12pm

    And you will never see these facial photos used as evidence in a trial or as support for an arrest or search warrant, but be assured that they will be used to identify criminals and then the supporting evidence will be reverse engineered knowing that this data collection would be immediately shut down if every openly used for this purpose.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2015 @ 7:51pm

    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.

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

  • icon
    tqk (profile), 12 Feb 2015 @ 10:22pm

    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.

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

  • icon
    Stephen Wilson Lockstep (profile), 12 Feb 2015 @ 10:48pm

    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.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2015 @ 12:46am

    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?

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

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 13 Feb 2015 @ 10:13am

      Re:

      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?

      Do you mean to imply that Tim said that's OK?

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2015 @ 1:08am

    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.

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

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 13 Feb 2015 @ 10:14am

      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.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2015 @ 4:52pm

        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...

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

        • icon
          tqk (profile), 13 Feb 2015 @ 8:50pm

          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?

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

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 13 Feb 2015 @ 1:45am

    So now we have to start driving with masks. I propose a dong-shaped model.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2015 @ 3:02am

    Number 1
    You dont OWN the public to do with as you will

    Number 2
    BULLSHIT

    We are not lab rats tim, my expectation of privacy applies everywhere, a government who doesnt care or understands that can fall as far as im concerned

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

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 13 Feb 2015 @ 10:15am

      Re:

      We are not lab rats tim, my expectation of privacy applies everywhere,

      You expect to be in private when you're, for example, walking around the mall?

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

      • icon
        John Fenderson (profile), 13 Feb 2015 @ 2:25pm

        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.

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

        • icon
          nasch (profile), 13 Feb 2015 @ 3:26pm

          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.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2015 @ 6:24am

    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.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2015 @ 7:56am

      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.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2015 @ 1:23pm

        Re: Re:

        At least up here in Canada, semi tractors have plates on the front bumper for that reason. I suspect it's the same in the lower 48 as well.

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

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 13 Feb 2015 @ 10:16am

      Re:

      The LPR cameras can't even ID a plate with 100% accuracy in ideal situations. Now add in angles, weather, blockage, ect

      Oh good, the technology isn't perfect yet. That makes everything OK, nothing to worry about here.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2015 @ 11:24am

        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.

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

        • icon
          nasch (profile), 13 Feb 2015 @ 11:51am

          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.

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

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2015 @ 5:11pm

            Re: Re: Re: 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...)

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

            • icon
              nasch (profile), 13 Feb 2015 @ 5:50pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              (I hope this comment doesn't need an explicit [\s], but I am an AC, so...)

              You just never know anymore.

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

            • icon
              nasch (profile), 13 Feb 2015 @ 5:51pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              That way, there will be no unintended consequences and everything will, without exception, work out for the best down the road.

              Oh BTW, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act is another great example of how everything always turns out great with legislation focused on how technology works right now.

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

              • icon
                tqk (profile), 13 Feb 2015 @ 9:00pm

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

                Oh BTW, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act is another great example of how everything always turns out great with legislation focused on how technology works right now.

                So, whose idea was it to fill congress with lawyers because they're better able to write laws?

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2015 @ 7:21am

    VIN numbers also accessible

    The recent discussions of automobile software insecurity have shown that VIN #'s are often used as unique identifiers for the purposes of authorizing remote access.

    These VIN #'s can be read using high resolution cameras from above any roadway, and then correlated with license plate #'s.

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

  • icon
    david allsebrook (profile), 13 Feb 2015 @ 7:44am

    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.

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

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 13 Feb 2015 @ 10:18am

      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

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

  • identicon
    Reality bites, 13 Feb 2015 @ 7:48am

    If they have the data, they will abuse it, the NSA proves it daily.

    When no one watches the watchers... they go quietly insane.

    There are two groups that cannot ever be trusted with private data, they have both proved it countless times with their proven crimes. The government and corporations.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2015 @ 8:04am

    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.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2015 @ 1:36pm

    Faces R' Us

    Welcome to Faces R Us, your online one stop travelling anonymity shop.

    Here at FRU, we use the latest 3d printing technology, (and we're always improving), to produce truly realistic micro-thin latex pull-on, peel-off, modelled and randomly generated human face masks, (male or female), so that you can walk, ride or drive to the store and not leave a trail of personally incriminating facial-rec images every 100 feet of your journey.

    Our FRU masks are micro-thin and breathe like real skin, so you can wear them for hours comfortably and are so inexpensive that you could easily wear one every hour while shopping or travelling down town, without breaking the bank.

    Because we make our masks without a scalp section so that your own hair is uncovered, you can slip one on in seconds and the mask conforms to your facial shape, while altering only the primary reference points used by Face-rec recording computer programs to insure your complete identity security.

    We also sell great latex wig sections that snap over your own hair easily and completely and attach directly to the edges of the FRU facial masks, for complete anonymity.

    Drop by today at www.fruanon4u.com and look at our Face Book Gallery of thousands of pre-designed faces and select your own favourites for only 99 cents each, or get a random face pack of twenty five FRU face-masks for $22.95.

    You can even upload your own images of famous faces, friends and family for parties and pranks, and we will create an FRU mask made to your order, singly or in packs of 25.

    Please allow 3-4 weeks for delivery. All shipments are made via FastOrder Shipping Services and a tracking code will be emailed to you on the day your order begins its journey to your home. Please include $3.50 per 25 (or portion thereof) FRU masks ordered, for shipping and handling.

    ----

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2015 @ 8:19pm

    It's a prison planet.

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

  • identicon
    bobbysue, 15 Feb 2015 @ 6:12am

    whats new

    so whats new with the government telling its servants to shut and mind your own business...it happened in 1773 and later you see how that ended...of course back then there were people who were willing to get off the couch and do something...

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


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