Science Fiction has very much become Science Fact with ALPR technology. What is it? In simple terms it is a camera and some software that can be in a fixed location or mounted in a vehicle that will scan vehicle license plates and see if the car is stolen or if there outstanding warrants for the owner (presumed driver). This sounds like a handy dandy tool, it saves the tedium of some poor cop having to type in the plate info into his onboard computer.

This sounds like a new version of the Red Light Camera? When a car goes through a red light a picture of the plate is snapped and a few days later you get a nasty letter demanding money. The key though is that only drivers that are breaking the law get their happy snap taken. You have to have crossed the Red Light to trigger the camera.

You could view this as a passive technology, it is put in play only when a crime is seen to be in progress.

ALPR is a far more active system. Mounted on a car it can ‘actively’ seek out and check thousands of plates per hour while just driving around. Sure, I hear many people say, so what? I have nothing to hide, so who cares? It is a valid point of view, but it is flawed. What happens to the data? Is it kept or is it dumped?

This is where it gets interesting. North of the border there is this rather long, but well worth reading article on ALPR from FocusOnline.

The inference is that as the technology spreads so does a huge data mine of peoples movements. Just like Google serves you targeted ad’s based on your browsing history, the feds now have a history of where you have been. This sounds very Orwellian to me! How long the ‘innocent data’ is retained seems to be a question that is a hot potato. As do questions about its future value.

OH, fear not, ALPR is here in the US, but it has not hit the privacy radar yet. Pasadena, California are happy:

Pasadena Police Officials announced this week that they have made their first arrest using new automated license plate recognition system (ALPR) technology, a new system which allows Police Officers to scan thousands of plates every shift via cameras mounted on their patrol cars.

Thousands of plates? Wow!

According to the Pasadena Police Department, Christopher Castillo, 24, was arrested last Friday night at around 10:00pm when a Police Officer’s in-car computer alerted him with a notice that the car was stolen.  Castillo is an active parolee of Pasadena and was subsequently arrested for driving a stolen vehicle.

The police in Braselton. GA are equally happy:

Using infrared technology, the two cameras mounted on the front of Bohannon’s vehicle take information with 600 tags a minute being read.

This backed up by “It’s big business and an amazing tool,” said Braselton Police Chief Terry Esco.

Esco also added:

the officer must set up just right to get the read that a vehicle’s insurance has lapsed, a charge that can cost the driver $2,000 with a license suspension.

Ouch, is this guy about law enforcement or fund raising?

Interestingly enough neither the folks in Pasadena nor Braselton mention what happens to the data for  innocent drivers. Is it dumped, or is it just sitting on a hard drive in a data center?  I suspect that it is only a matter of time before this becomes a court case.

Simon Barrett    

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