Police Using ALPR/ANPR to Track People

Pablo Valerio, International Business & IT Consultant | 10/17/2011 | 10 comments

Pablo Valerio
Automatic License (or Number) Plate Recognition has been around for several years. In the UK, a CCTV network -– with more than 10,000 cameras just in the London area -- can be used to track vehicle movements in real-time. The data is stored for five years and can be analyzed by intelligence services and used as evidence in a criminal case. When the system became operational in 2006, the ANPR center in the north of London was already able to store 50 million plate reads per day.

That's a lot of data to retain. Until recently, a police officer would enter a license plate in a computer terminal and get information about any possible violation, theft, etc. If everything were normal and no further action were required, the search would be deleted. But ALPR systems work differently. They retain the license plate number, time, date, and GPS location of the vehicle. With completely autonomous systems installed in roads and police cars, each unit can scan several thousand cars per day and store the information about their location.

In some places, ALPR systems are already sending tickets for violations automatically, without human supervision. For example, Spain and the Netherlands are using average speed cameras to detect speeding. Since speeding drivers know most of the locations for fixed radar systems, they tend to brake to a legal speed when approaching the systems and subsequently accelerate back to illegal speeds. With the ALPR systems, no radar is necessary. The cameras read every license plate and calculate the time it took to get from one camera to another. If the average speed is 10% or more above the speed limit, a ticket is issued automatically. This has the advantage of enforcing speed limits over long distances and not penalizing drivers who exceed the speed limit for only a few minutes. But it also raises the issue of a computer system issuing a penalty for a violation.

In many countries, there is no legislation to protect people from abuse of the system. Privacy groups are getting really concerned, and with reason. How long is the location data is going to be stored? Who has access to the information, and for what purposes? What is the standard the government agencies need to meet to investigate the movements of an individual?

In the US, many cities and towns are now purchasing ALPR systems for local police with grants from the Department of Transportation, and organizations such as the ACLU are working hard to raise awareness about the potential threat to normal citizens’ privacy.

"With very narrow limits imposed on its use, the technology can be deployed without negatively affecting civil liberties. Unfortunately, use of the machines is spreading in Massachusetts and nationwide, entirely without these protections, becoming another mechanism enabling the tracking of ordinary people," the ACLU of Massachusetts said in a September press release. In its latest newsletter, it also said:

Information sharing among state and federal agencies is problematic partly because of the kinds of advanced data-mining software available to law enforcement. Here in MA, Amherst and many of the other towns who received funds expressed their eagerness to use data-mining software made specifically for ALPRs, called "BOSS," or "Back Office System Software." This technology is what makes ALPRs particularly dangerous because it can pick out particular data from a mountain of information and arrange it in such a way that enables frightening tracking of motorists.

Just like location tracking of your cellphone, ALPR systems pose a serious threat to people’s privacy, and their use needs to be regulated.

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
Pablo Valerio   Police Using ALPR/ANPR to Track People   10/20/2011 3:23:32 PM
Re: LPR isnt all bad

@pbmrp Who watches the watchers?

I have to disagree, people have the right to know, and reject, any kind of tracking done to them. I do not oppose the use of ALPR technology for quick checks against possible violations and to find criminals on a list, but keeping indiscriminate records of millions of individuals without cause is a breach of privacy rights and the 4th Amendment in the US.

Also, since the police is holding the data, they don’t need to go to court for a warrant to access the information.. so who watches the watchers?

There is al so the need to disclose to the public where and how the tracking is being done, and what kind of information is recorded, and where and how an individual can access his/her records and how to request to delete them.

I would appreciate, if you represent a manufacturer, that you disclose the name of your company and your position.

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pbmrp   Police Using ALPR/ANPR to Track People   10/18/2011 6:41:32 PM
LPR isnt all bad
I represent one of the ALPR mfg. very few at this time store data for 5 years. most have a goal of 180 days. for particular neighborhoods..they might store for longer. if you are a good citizen, you have nothing to fear. they only do queries for a plate they are interested in. they dont have the time, nor care less about the 96% of plates that belong to the good guys. I have seen far too many cases where the use of LPR has helped to find murderers, drug traffickers, etc. its a tool for helping us to rid the streets of the bad guys.
Pablo Valerio   Police Using ALPR/ANPR to Track People   10/18/2011 11:04:36 AM
The Price of Privacy
Birgit, I don't believe the CCTV and ALPR systems have a place in any area as crime fighting systems.

In the UK there is a big controversy now about their use and the length of data retention. The project Champion was created to track the movements of all cars in certain areas of Birgmingham, where there is a high concentration of Muslim population. The director of Privacy International, Simon Davies, said the database would give police "extraordinary powers of surveillance". "This would never be allowed in any other democratic country," he said. "This is possibly one of the most valuable reserves of data imaginable."

The Toronto police in Canada only retains data from ALPR systems 72 hours, and then it is destroyed.

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bnazarian   Police Using ALPR/ANPR to Track People   10/18/2011 10:03:01 AM
Re: Automatic
@catalyst. I agree. We had a case out where I live where a certain municipality nearby was approached by an out of state company that offered to install cameras to catch traffic violations. I believe they were making some pretty good money but voters were furious that they hadn't been given a chance to have some say. Once the petitions were passed around and signatures collected and the issue went to a vote, the cameras were taken down. Hmmm. I guess people don't like being surveilled that much. I can see the need in high traffic areas where there are a lot of accidents or high crime areas. But use of such equipment should address an existing and serious problem. 
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Pablo Valerio   Police Using ALPR/ANPR to Track People   10/18/2011 9:25:19 AM
Automatic - I have a big problem with that
@catalyst and @Dave. I don’t agree with machines issuing penalties for traffic violations. A traffic infraction –including a parking ticket—is a violation of law by an individual and has to be treated like that, including warranties of the driver’s rights. I don’t oppose the use of technology by the police to identify violations, but the actual ticket has to be issued by a person, not a machine. And the presumed offender has the right to appeal and face the accuser.
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catalyst   Police Using ALPR/ANPR to Track People   10/17/2011 8:13:58 PM
Re: Automatic
@Dave Sasson: I would think there would be a mass kiosk deployment, from those ticket revenues, for exactly those people. It scans your ticket, looks at your driving history, calculates every single speeding infraction, show you how lenient the state is to you, and recommends you pay the penalty, schedule a date for driver's ed, and go home.
Dave Sasson   Police Using ALPR/ANPR to Track People   10/17/2011 7:53:08 PM
Re: Automatic

Hi Automatic, On US highways, can you imagine the number of tickets for drivers going 10% faster than the speed limit?  That would be some good recurring revenue for the states and municipalities, plus it may overload the DMV offices for people trying to reduce their penalty points for all those speeding violations.

catalyst   Police Using ALPR/ANPR to Track People   10/17/2011 1:22:20 PM
I see this as automatic revenue generation (ARG) for states. States with massive deficits here in the U.S. will be very interested in deploying ALPR/ANPR. Revenue goes up, but you don't have to hire more police just to write more tickets. And that means less pension outlays in the future.
Pablo Valerio   Police Using ALPR/ANPR to Track People   10/17/2011 12:56:35 PM
Re: 5 years?
@Dave... you're preaching to the choir here..

But 5 years is just the beggining. I don't think the UK police is going to destry the data ever unless forced to.

Another issue is access. In many countries to access location data, i.e. cell tracking, the police needs a court order to access the data from the service provider.. but with ALPR they already have the data.. who controls the access?
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David Wagner   Police Using ALPR/ANPR to Track People   10/17/2011 12:09:04 PM
5 years?
This is just mind-blowing to me. How in the world can they hold the data tracking my movements for 5 years and use it in a court of law when i did not consent to be tracked? 5 years? Other than wanting to run a police state, what could possibly justify holding this data for that long?

I'm perfectly fine with speed traps, red light cameras, etc. But my feeling is that once you determine i'm not breaking the law, erase the data, that second. There is no good argument for keeping this data other than to control our lives.

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