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.