Automatic License Plate Scanners

The Boston Transportation Department, among other duties, hands out parking tickets. If a car has too many unpaid parking tickets, the BTD will lock a Denver Boot to one of the wheels, making the car unmovable. Once the tickets are paid up, the BTD removes th boot.

The white SUV in this photo is owned by the Boston Transportation Department. Its job is to locate cars that need to be booted. The two video cameras on top of the vehicle are hooked up to a laptop computer running license plate scanning software. The vehicle drives around the city scanning plates and comparing them with the database of unpaid parking tickets. When a match is found, the BTD officers jump out and boot the offending car. You can sort of see the boot on the front right wheel of the car behind the SUV in the photo.

This is the kind of thing I call “wholesale surveillance,” and I’ve written about license plate scanners in that regard last year.

Technology is fundamentally changing the nature of surveillance. Years ago, surveillance meant trench-coated detectives following people down streets. It was laborious and expensive, and was only used when there was reasonable suspicion of a crime. Modern surveillance is the policeman with a license-plate scanner, or even a remote license-plate scanner mounted on a traffic light and a policeman sitting at a computer in the station. It’s the same, but it’s completely different. It’s wholesale surveillance.

And it disrupts the balance between the powers of the police and the rights of the people.


Like the license-plate scanners, the electronic footprints we leave everywhere can be automatically correlated with databases. The data can be stored forever, allowing police to conduct surveillance backwards in time.

The effects of wholesale surveillance on privacy and civil liberties is profound; but unfortunately, the debate often gets mischaracterized as a question about how much privacy we need to give up in order to be secure. This is wrong. It’s obvious that we are all safer when the police can use all techniques at their disposal. What we need are corresponding mechanisms to prevent abuse, and that don’t place an unreasonable burden on the innocent.

Throughout our nation’s history, we have maintained a balance between the necessary interests of police and the civil rights of the people. The license plate itself is such a balance. Imagine the debate from the early 1900s: The police proposed affixing a plaque to every car with the car owner’s name, so they could better track cars used in crimes. Civil libertarians objected because that would reduce the privacy of every car owner. So a compromise was reached: a random string of letter and numbers that the police could use to determine the car owner. By deliberately designing a more cumbersome system, the needs of law enforcement and the public’s right to privacy were balanced.

The search warrant process, as prescribed in the Fourth Amendment, is another balancing method. So is the minimization requirement for telephone eavesdropping: the police must stop listening to a phone line if the suspect under investigation is not talking.

For license-plate scanners, one obvious protection is to require the police to erase data collected on innocent car owners immediately, and not save it. The police have no legitimate need to collect data on everyone’s driving habits. Another is to allow car owners access to the information about them used in these automated searches, and to allow them to challenge inaccuracies.

The Boston Globe has written about this program.

Richard M. Smith, who took this photo, made a public request to the BTD last summer for the database of scanned license plate numbers that is being collected by this vehicle. The BTD told him at the time that the database is not a public record, because the database is owned by AutoVu, the Canadian company that makes the license plate scanner software used in the vehicle. This software is being “loaned” to the City of Boston as part of a “beta” test program.

Anyone doubt that AutoVu is going to sell this data to a company like ChoicePoint?

Posted on October 7, 2005 at 1:49 PM65 Comments


LsH October 7, 2005 2:50 PM

In my point of view its this very dangerous systems for the privacy. At this experimenting the license plate data base will stand hopefully save on the laptop. If something is carried out such on a larger scale it will use probably a license plate database which is accessible for all police force. The danger of abuse becomes then much larger.

A complete different, but well important point is that I also against the use am of this kind of systems with real data in the experimenting phase. The impact of leaking out data through errors are much too large. Also there are many mistakes possible. What to think of someone who has already paid but is nevertheless is stopped because of an not up at date data base?

What me they do not have introduce a system such as this in the Netherlands… :S It is perhaps well for the police force, but for the citizens.

Davi Ottenheimer October 7, 2005 2:58 PM

Good one Stephen. Along the same line of reasoing, Boston shouldn’t bother booting the car when they could surreptitiously install tracking devices as a “preventative” measure and monitor the vehicle’s every move to rack up additional violations…even better if the surveillance/database company gets a percentage of every ticket.

Michael Ash October 7, 2005 3:07 PM

Is it illegal to cover your license plate while the car is parked? It’s obviously illegal while you’re driving, but if it’s just parked on the street, it seems to me like it might just work. Of course, it doesn’t fix the larger issue of automatic scanners, which work just fine while you’re driving too, but it would disrupt this particular use.

azplate October 7, 2005 3:20 PM

This isn’t new. A few years ago (pre-9/11), I worked on a project for the Arizona Department of Motor Vehicles on a test project in which a combination of camera and a laser absorption system would:

(1) Detect your car moving down the highway
(2) Measure the vehicle’s speed
(3) Use the laser sensor to estimate the emissions of the vehicle
(4) Take a picture of the vehicle
(5) Identify the license plate number through image processing
(6) Look up the plate number in the database to determine vehicle model and year, and from that determine that model year’s emission limits
(7) Determine if emissions exceeded limits
(8) If exceeded, save the image and sensor data, and generate an automatic letter that is mailed to the registered vehicle owner requiring them to come in for emissions testing in the next month.

Interestingly, the AZDOT folks in charge of this were very smart when it came to privacy and security, and realized the privacy concerns. A very large amount of effort went into compartmentalizing the system, anonymizing data, and purging un-needed data so that if your vehicle didn’t exceed the emissions limits, the data wasn’t kept and couldn’t easily be abused. Data not needed to verify the papertrail on offenders was deleted. For vehicles that were flagged, the images were digitally blurred except for the tailpipe and license plate area. And the vehicle registration data was pre-downloaded en masse from the DMV so that they couldn’t track which vehicles had passed the vehicle camera checkpoint by looking at the data requests.

So in this case, the system was well designed from a security and privacy viewpoint:

(a) The uncertainties in the measurement technique were addressed by only using it as a screening test, with the real emissions test only done to those vehicles failing
(b) Care was taken to address the “wholesale surveillance” concerns

Alas, in the post 9/11 world, I’m not sure these safeguards would still be in place.

Aqualung October 7, 2005 3:31 PM


While I can’t speak for all states, here in Nebraska the appropriate statute reads:

” (2) When two license plates are issued, one shall be prominently displayed at all times on the front and one on the rear of the registered motor vehicle or trailer.”

So yes, it’s illegal. I’m assuming most states have similar legislation in place.

DHofmann October 7, 2005 4:30 PM

Instead of immediately destroying the information after it’s used, archive it to a restricted-access database from which records may only be retrieved through a court order (similar to a search warrant). Local copies would be destroyed immediately after they are uploaded to the database.

Later on, the police or F.B.I. could ask the court to permit a query of all the cars in the vicinities of two different sniper shootings (rapes, robberies, bombings, etc.) within a specific time period, cross-referenced to each other. Any cars that were in both locations in the specified time periods would be investigative leads in the case.

ac October 7, 2005 4:39 PM

Having inaccurate data in the database is a huge deal. I know from personal experience that fraudulent information on your credit report sometimes can’t be expunged even with the support of the AG’s consumer protection office–and I happen to be lucky enough to have solid evidence that it’s fraud. What about data that’s wrong but you can’t PROVE it’s wrong? Shouldn’t the burden be on the police to prove that the data is accurate, if challenged?

But on the larger scale, I agree with Bruce that the biggest problem with this is surveillance without having probably cause, or even mild suspicion.

jammit October 7, 2005 6:20 PM

I do know in some places in Kansas they only give you one license plate for the rear. If you park in your driveway backwards where the cops can’t see the license plate, you can get a ticket for not having a visible license plate.
Bruce asked “Anyone doubt that AutoVu is going to sell this data to a company like ChoicePoint?”. I’m surprised they haven’t already. What prevents me from adding invisible infrared reflecting ink to my plate and flooding it with IR light so the camera sees a different number? If I get a boot on my vehicle, do I get another parking ticket if it sits too long while waiting to pay the previous ticket? What happened to cops putting a slip of paper under the windshield wiper? This is definitely not to prevent crime or make people answer for their crimes, but is instead revenue enhancement via a bullying tactic. My apologies for not having anything funny to add.

Stephen October 7, 2005 8:53 PM

I’ve had cops in Maryland harass me for only having one plate on my car, which is registered in Pennsylvania. I pointed out my out-of-state plates, only to be told, “You’re driving in Maryland. You need two plates here.” That considered, I wouldn’t trust on-the-beat cops to know the law one way or the other, and would expect any attempt to obfuscate or remove the plate, even when parked on private property, to cause problems.

Larry Seltzer October 7, 2005 10:04 PM

I’m sure it’s sacreligious, but I’ll say it: I don’t get why people are upset at the collection of data about activities and presence in public view. Bruce’s analogy to the fourth amendment is misleading; there’s no attempt to invade anyone’s privacy here, there’s an effort, made much more efficient through technology, to collect the same sort of data I could collect walking down the street with a clipboard.

Of course it’s just like fixed public surveillance cameras: Nobody would mind if a police officer were standing in the same spot observing a street corner, but put a camera in that place and suddenly we’re in Stalinist Russia.

I’m not saying that the data can’t be abused or that the authorities shouldn’t be constrained, through law or just their own policies, in how they use the data, such as not retaining any data without a good reason beyond some relatively short point in time.

To sum up, in cases where nobody’s privacy is being invaded – and nobody has a reasonable expectation of privacy on a public street – the fact that technology makes data collection more efficient doesn’t raise the activity to a civil rights problem.

packrat October 7, 2005 10:29 PM

If this sort of system catches on, it won’t be long before there are countermeasures available. It should be relatively simple to adapt this system ( use on a car.

@Larry Seltzer
There’s a fundamental difference between having a police officer on every corner and having a camera on every corner. A camera system allows centralized and coordinated observation of the area it covers. Even if the data is not retained, it allows whoever is monitoring the system to do things like visually tracking individuals as they move around. On the other hand, tracking an individual without a camera system requires detailing an officer to physically follow them. The extra effort involved helps to restrict tracking to when it’s really needed. A camer system would allow tracking to be done basically on a whim.

True, people don’t expect much in the way of privacy on the street. But that’s not the same as expecting to be followed everywhere they go.

Boyd October 7, 2005 10:53 PM

I have to agree with Larry: if you didn’t a) break the law in the first place, and b) park your vehicle in a public place, you wouldn’t have anything to worry about.

I agree that abuse is possible, but the collection of data itself isn’t inherently bad in my book. Don’t break the law, and you don’t have to worry about getting booted.

Vidiot October 7, 2005 11:02 PM

Don’t break the law, and you don’t have to worry about getting booted.

Unless, Boyd, your legally-parked car has a similar license plate number to someone who owns a lot of money in parking tickets. OCR isn’t perfect. There’s always going to be a false positive rate.

Incidentally, I’ve never figured out the social utility of the Denver boot. I mean, if the car is parked illegally, then how does making sure it stays where it is wind up solving the problem? Especially when people are scofflaws and aren’t paying their tickets, et cetera — when the car is immobilized, especially when it’s in a legal spot, that minimizes the number of legal spots for drivers who follow the rules.

Erik Wessing October 7, 2005 11:17 PM

The issue isn’t just a question of not being booted.
The issue is that with this sort of wholesale data collection and no policy that it be destroyed, it will be around forever. If the police decide 5 years from now that the house across the street from my girlfriend’s house has been a terrorist safehouse for 10 years, they can go back and look up who’s often been parking in front of it and come knocking on my door. with guns drawn, most likely. On, as has been said, a whim: “Hey, I wonder if we can find the terrorists by looking at who parks in front of there a lot….”

Scot October 8, 2005 12:04 AM

I wonder if there might be some value in drawing a distinction between “privacy” and “anonymity”. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect privacy when I’m driving my car on a public road. What I have in that case is anonymity, and that’s what a camera that records me running a red light destroys. The way I see it, if you’re in a situation where you feel comfortable in your underwear, that’s privacy. If you wouldn’t be there in your underwear, but you would be there with the person you’re having an affair with, that’s anonymity.
By calling both things “privacy”, I think it makes it more difficult to rationally discuss where the limits should be drawn.

Rainer October 8, 2005 4:06 AM

Sounds like a waste of money.

When people have n unpaid tickets mail them a warning, when they have n+2 unpaid tickets mail a note that the license for their car is temporarily revoked and they have to pay now or hand in their license plates.

If the car is driving around later just take it away, give the owner an additional (high) fine and keep it until everything is paid.

J October 8, 2005 5:02 AM

Here in the UK this sort of thing is common, and the data used for all sorts of things, from checking the purchase of a “congestion charge” (in London you have have pay a fiver a day to drive in the centre), that your road tax is up to date, and it is being extended to include whether your insurance is up to date. My guess is that Blair and Co are keeping their data as part of their police state approach to terrorism, they want to be able to go back and track people, months/years later.

Erik Wessing October 8, 2005 6:15 AM

That is exactly what does happen now.
Except where you have “take it away,” (which is what used to in fact happen; they would tow your car away) they now just immobilize it.

The “problem” is the part about finding it driving around. Just waiting for the car to do something such that a cop will notice it and run the plate to know that it’s due to be dealt with…that turns out to be very very slow. And having a cop walk or drive down the street entering every plate by hand is too laborious, so it doesn’t get done. This device makes that as simple as criusing down the street a little slower than normal and listening for the ping. The issue is that having done that, the police now know the identity of every car parked on that block at that time. And they don’t tend to throw that information away.

MathFox October 8, 2005 6:37 AM

A question for Larry Seltzer and Boyd:

Would you like to see that the tracking information for your car is publicly made available on the Web?

Enter: license plate number and date
Get: a list with time and location of each camara that spotted your car. (Optional: an annotated map.)

It is technicly possible to make such a site today (provided that you can get the data from the traffic cameras).

A October 8, 2005 8:56 AM

Is it really the low cost of collecting the information afforded by technology that makes it an abuse of privacy?

Mary October 8, 2005 10:28 AM

@DHofmann – Remember, court orders can come from civil suits, which often have nothing to do with criminal activity. Most of the court orders for Ez-Pass information has been in divorce cases.

Would you want to have to justify to a soon-to-be ex-husband or wife everywhere you’ve driven or parked?

Larry Seltzer October 8, 2005 11:50 AM

I’m not worried about OCR errors resulting in false booting of my car. The computer doing the OCR doesn’t put the boot on my car, a human looking for a specific license plate and car description is doing that. This will check the vast majority of such errors.

packrat: “A camera system allows centralized and coordinated observation of the area it covers. Even if the data is not retained, it allows whoever is monitoring the system to do things like visually tracking individuals as they move around.” I agree, these are excellent arguments in favor of camera systems.

For those who aren’t worried about a police officer but are worried that camera data could be retained indefinitely, the officer’s memory is indefinite as well. If you’re innocent, which would you rather have as evidence against you in court, a video record of what actually happened or some policeman’s recollection?

MathFox: Now that’s a good question. No, I wouldn’t like it and I see no reason to expect such a thing from a police collection of such data. Really, I’m not worried about that. If a private entity were to do it that would be troublesome, but I can’t imagine why anyone ever would. Perhaps there’s some nexus between abuse of such a database and anti-stalking laws. But I would expect private entities, such as the Canadian company in Bruce’s story, to work with such data in the aggregate rather than mining for information on individuals.

Delores Quade October 8, 2005 12:35 PM

@ Mary

“Would you want to have to justify to a soon-to-be ex-husband or wife everywhere you’ve driven or parked?”

Sure. Unless I’m doing something that might hurt him or her, or heaven forbid, make me pay more money to him or her. Grow up already.

Roy Owens October 8, 2005 5:18 PM

If your car gets booted and your bill is $20,000, yet you actually are innocent, a false positive, how likely are you to get justice at all?

I suspect people will learn that it’s not worth fighting. Just pay ‘the street tax’ and swallow your pride.

Is automated surveillance ‘neutral’? If it is fair for the police to do it to citizens then it is fair for citizens to do it to the police. Yet the police, while they exercise unlimited power to take pictures of citizens, will not allow citizens the freedom to take pictures of the police.

Richard October 8, 2005 9:30 PM

The use of video cameras in the public arena is one of my “pet peeves” – in as much as I very much agree with Bruce – we are losing the balance that has been established in the past.
From my blog at:
“what we need is a solution that both the police (security agencies) and the privacy advocates can live with”

What I propose today is like a license plate for each camera, with some obvious method of learning more about what is done with the images the camera takes so I can make an informed decision about whether I want to be near it, and know who is accountable or who will intervene (the law?) if things are not as they are “registered”. In effect I propose a function of government that is akin to the licensing of a car/truck, along with at least a broad categorization that the public would be able to understand easily when near the camera and with no other references.

Even in the case of the roving camera-equipped vehicle it must show some information about its capabilities and how long the images are archived, etc.

Michael Ash October 9, 2005 6:55 AM


Just because there’s no expectation of privacy in public doesn’t mean every possible means of public data collection is reasonable.

One example: the only data collection allowed is human police officers who follow suspects with probable cause while they’re in public. I think everyone can agree that this is not an invasion of privacy.

Another example: every single citizen is followed by a robot from the moment he sets foot in public view to the moment he enters private property. This robot reports all of his activity back to headquarters, and makes sure that the subject does not commit any crimes. Most people would probably agree that this is an enormous invasion of privacy.

The question is where to draw the line. Current automated surveillance techniques are far short of my doomsday scenario, but in my mind it is very much unclear which side of the line they’re on. I don’t believe that simply saying “no expectation of privacy” is sufficient when it comes to mass automated surveillance.

Anonymous October 9, 2005 9:20 AM

@ vidiot
“Don’t break the law, and you don’t have to worry about getting booted.

“Unless, Boyd, your legally-parked car has a similar license plate number to someone who owns a lot of money in parking tickets. OCR isn’t perfect. There’s always going to be a false positive rate.”

Which is why the people in the truck get some information about the vehicle, not just “The car behind you should be blocked” — they almost certainly get the license plate number and possibly the amount owed from the system. If the numbers don’t match, they don’t block the vehicle.

And if you have someone else’s license plate, well, that’s also illegal.

This isn’t a good move, of course, but it’s probably not devastating alone.

Dave October 9, 2005 11:54 AM

What is your point? That my license plate number, on the back of may car, it private? The fact that I owe a lot of parking tickets is private? Of what use is the database to Choice point?

Ari Heikkinen October 9, 2005 11:56 AM

The problem with what you call “wholesale surveillance” is that it assumes everyone’s an attacker until proven otherwise. Kind of like shooting suspected terrorists before they get a chance to detonate their bombs.

Doc October 9, 2005 11:59 AM

I am required to have a license plate, by law in every state AFAIK. Using advanced tools to ID known violators by this plate seems like a good thing to me. I dont see this activity as any different than having a whole slew of officers walking the streets and calling in license plates for violations checks, which we simply cant afford (since we are so broke paying for 3 hots and a cot for lifers, but that’s another issue)

Stick to security and stop sniffing that ACLU glue.

Besides, all you gotta do is put some mud on a few of the letters, and the OCR will bonk.

cottonmouth October 9, 2005 12:02 PM

Quote: Enter: license plate number and date
Get: a list with time and location of each camara that spotted your car. (Optional: an annotated map.) /quote

Try APRS – its been doing that for some years for ham radio operators who voluntarily use the protocol.

suspicious October 9, 2005 1:40 PM

It seems fishy for me that a CANADIAN company would somehow own the records to the cars that the BOSTON Transportation Department tickets. Indeed, looking at the AutoVu site, the “AutoFind for Booting” product mentions that it works with a blacklist of any type. I’m pretty sure that while the software is provided by AutoVu, the BTD provides the database. Therefore, the response that the BTD sent back in the letter might have been a lie.

Deimos October 10, 2005 12:33 AM

Doc: obscuring your plate is illegal and will result in fines.

I’ve personally had problems with automated license plate scanning. They do this in Los Angeles. My car was towed by the police. I called it in, reported it stolen. Got a notice from a tow-yard 10 days later, saying my car was going up for auction. Told by them it was towed by the police… went to the police got a letter of release, because the car was mistakenly towed. Had to pay >$1000 to get the tow-yard to release it. After that I was free to take the police department to court to get my $$$ back… yay police state!

packrat October 10, 2005 12:54 AM

@Larry Seltzer
Funny, I thought I was making arguments against ubiquitous camera systems. 🙂

Getting back on topic, I agree (as I think most of us do) that getting people to pay their overdue parking tickets is desirable, at least from a revenue-enhancing point of view. Several people have asked why people who follow the law should be afraid of having their license plate photographed and checked against a database. That’s not really the problem, in my opinion. The question is, what else will a system of roving, networked cameras end up being used for? I for one am not trusting enough to believe that such a system will only ever be used to enforce parking tickets.

Tomas October 10, 2005 3:11 AM

In Spain we already have automatic plate recognition. There are restricted zones where only authorized cars are allowed to transit (foreign cars are subject to ticketing, unless justified authorization or permit)

you can see the flash movie of the
process here:

There is a database of car plates, but there is no information of who and how will use that information (but, as the system is governed by the Ayuntamiento de Madrid, I think nobody can do much more )

MathFox October 10, 2005 5:35 AM

cottonmouth, the keyword with APRS is voluntary. Should we allow our governments to trace the steps of every innocent citicen?

In the Netherlands there is a discussion about “road pricing” (either with a camera network or a GPS receiver in each car). So far political discussion of privacy issues has lead to postponement of the final decision.

Mary October 10, 2005 10:50 AM

The real problem with this system is that the recorded plate numbers are not deleted from the system once it has been determined that they do not belong to cars that need to be booted.

I drive and park in Boston. There is no sign as you enter the city warning you that the police are recording where and when you park, that this data will belong to a company in Canada, and neither you nor the city will be able to stop them from doing whatever they want with it.

There should be.

@Deloros Quade – People see therapists, try to find new apartments their ex-spouses won’t know the location of. Nice people marry idiots who turn out to be scary and violent. Grow up.

Anonymous October 10, 2005 12:27 PM

@ Dave “Of what use is the database to Choice point?”

‘I own an upscale boutique, and am looking for new clients. Give me a listing of registered owners of vehicles visiting certain areas of town housing other upscale boutiques. Yes, I’ll pay an extra $50 for that list to be restricted to people who have visited more than 3 times per month.’ Sound plausible?

Delores Quade October 10, 2005 1:20 PM

@ Mary

“@Delores Quade – People see therapists, try to find new apartments their ex-spouses won’t know the location of. Nice people marry idiots who turn out to be scary and violent.”

I am unfortuneately all-too-familiar with this kind of situation. When there is violence, and it is reported, there are many things you can do to legally hide your identity, including changing your social security number. In my experience, the best way to thwart a loved one who has become scary and violent, is to reverse the situation and make them fear you. It may seem impossible, but it is not. We are not weak beings and in fact can be very clever and intellectual about handling this type of situation. Your original post said “Would you want to have to justify to a soon-to-be ex-husband or wife everywhere you’ve driven or parked?” which did not imply (as your follow up post did) that you were concerned with stalking issues. Stalking issues are scary, but once we learn to defend ourselves, that fear does dissipate.

out in public view October 10, 2005 1:34 PM

The BTD should certainly be taken to task by the citizens of Boston for spending taxpayer money to run this system and not having any control over the data that it is spending taxpayer money to collect. Seems the BTD has gotten themselves into a rather seedy relationship with AutoVu.

Regarding the comment about ChoicePoint, it would be valid only if there were some way to correlate license plate data and auto owner data. For that, one would need a DMV database. I would hope that the states protect their DMV databases such that not just anyone with a license plate number can get information about who the car owner is (or vice-versa).

If it is possible to get access to DMV databases (with license plate and owner info), then having a database of scanned license plate data and the location the scan took place could be valuable. What is to prevent some enterprising chap from purchasing the same license plate scannig system from AutoVu, driving around cities, and selling the data collected to information brokers like ChoicePoint? One could license/provide such technologies to companies (or cities) to mount on taxi-cabs, delivery vehicles, buses, etc., that are driving around cities anyway. One could supplement by adding dedicated scanner vehicles that “patrol” popular areas (i.e. malls, shops, etc.). Centralize all the data, add GPS, and one could have a rather comprehensive database. Depending on the demand for such data, such a system could pay for itself pretty quickly. Leaves one kind of wondering what AutoVu’s business plan looks like. Maybe AutoVu will give away “scanner” cars to people to drive around town or more popular areas (the same way some companies give painted up “advertising” cars).

Alan De Smet October 10, 2005 3:33 PM

This is a privacy issue and your pseudo-privacy in public places is important. In particular, what happens when the system fails, when criminals become involved? So you’re law abiding, a good citizen. But there is a database tracking your car’s movements with years of data, along with the information for almost everyone else in the city. Someone breaks into the police system and steals that data, or a dirty cop or contracter makes a copy, or the company paid to process the data accidentally lets a copy leak.

Well, the crazy guy/woman who has been stalking you would love to be able to find your daily schedule.

Perhaps your religion has become unpopular (say you’re a Muslim immediately after 9/11); I would hope a vigilante group couldn’t easily find everyone who regularly parks in front of the local temple or church or mosque.

Maybe you’re working for some unpopular movement (similar to working for civil rights in the south in the United States just a few decades ago). You morally need to support the movement, but you have kids who might be targetted by more vigilantes. Reasonably anonymity means you can perhaps do some work for the group, perhaps in the back office. You wouldn’t want “Who regularly parks within three blocks of this building?” to be an easy question to get answers to.

Burglars could correlate a car’s movements to notice that your car stopped travelling to an office building daily; you’re probably on vacation, time to break in.

Perhaps you engage in an activity that it legal but that your boss would fire you over. It could be something like visiting strip clubs, but it could also be the church you attend, or the political cause you volunteer for in the evenings. In a small business, your boss might be very interested in knowing that you make regular visits to the doctor; he might think you’re the reason the company’s health insurance premiums is so high and fire you. If you can get regular updates, keep an eye out for female employees who visit stores for infant supplies; they may be planning on having a child which adds complications as a business owner; fire them. (Yes, many of these would be illegal, but also hard to prove.)

Just because your innocent doesn’t mean that you have nothing to fear.

Collected information leaks. FBI agents with access to a company’s secrets have been caught selling that information to a competitor. Cops have poked around in police records to investigate love interests. Abuse really happens and we need to plan for it. When you start collecting this level of information you need to be very careful. You need lots of safeguards. But safeguards are expensive and hard to justify because if the database leaks the database holder rarely pays any penalty.w

Payola October 10, 2005 3:55 PM

Hey you’re all forgetting one last little detail. You can always bribe the employee.

Don’t believe me? I welcome you to visit Boylston Street. I see it every day. A car parked in the same metered spot all day with no ticket. (Note to those not familiar with the parking rules: 2 hour max parking means you gotta move at least a block after the meter’s up).

Kevin October 10, 2005 4:38 PM

Question: If Choicepoint bought it’s own version of this camera system, and began using it in downtown Boston for its own purposes – the net effect is the same as what Bruce seemed to be afraid of. If there was some sort of economic incentive to know the exact location of licence plates in downtown Boston, should something be done to prevent Choicepoint from owning/using this system? What?

P. Roofreader October 10, 2005 8:25 PM

Is the text of the article garbled or corrupted near the first hyperlink? It doesn’t make sense to me…

packrat October 11, 2005 1:04 AM

That’s a very interesting question. I’m not aware of any specific laws against a private corporation (or person) surveilling public places. I would think that it would expose them to numerous lawsuits, though. I know that I’m not comfortable with the idea of a private company watching my every move. I’m curious to hear what other people think, though.

How about it? Any of you who have said that the Boston system is not a big deal, how would you feel if it were a private entity (corporate or personal) doing the surveillance for their own purposes?

Yvan Boily October 11, 2005 8:58 AM

Actually, to all of the people who are thinking that a Canadian company can willy-nilly sell personal information to a third party, this is not the case.

We have a nice little law called PIPEDA up here, which outlines how a business can use information that it gathers about people. This is outlined at the site below:

In this case, if the information was owned by AutoVu, it still couldn’t be sold without running afoul of the requirement for an individual to consent to sharing of the information. The exception to this would be in the case that the information was being shared with law-enforcement for investigative purposes.

The Boston Transportation Department needs to double-check its misinformation here as well, because they are the business owners of the information, regardless of who owns the equipment.

And Bruce, I expect better from you; I thought you would have known about the protection that PIPEDA grants American citizens doing business with Canadian companies, especially in light of the Patriot Act implications to American service providers operating within Canada.

Privacy has been a serious issue in Canada even before the Patriot Act came in to play south of our border, and it has become even more important to most Canadians.

the dood October 11, 2005 9:22 PM

Another is to allow car owners access to the information about them used in these automated searches, and to allow them to challenge inaccuracies

Not a good idea Bruce, and I’m surprised you said that.

In this world of keylogging worms and corporate/gov/whomever’s databases getting hacked, what citizen should want a database of this stuff lying around?

Besides….what about the “flight recorders” in cars that already exist? They’ve been there for a long time and these days a lot cars come with those spiffy GPS map systems. Nobody can get me to believe that the recorder doesn’t record location.

deidentified October 12, 2005 11:01 AM

The key to all of these things is this, the individual has an inherent right to privacy to act on his/her choices in life, to avoid criminal or civic acts which lead to harming individual(s) or public interest AND thus to consent or not and the respect which goes with said actions. Now with all these things more and more data matching & triangulation WILL happen through the expanded use of these technologies and without the appropriate mitigation of law, policy & procedural controls the privacy of the person and groups WILL be eroded. Believe it. What happens when future laws make acts criminal and then the state retroactively applies said instruments to their citizens? Its already being done with DNA.

j May 13, 2006 6:06 PM

I have a problem with this because I don’t like anyone following me around snooping and learning my routes and times I’m home, I don’t feel safe. I don’t want to start getting tickets in the mail a week later, because i may not remember last week.. not coming to a complete stop at a light, and all this legal crap is just there to make money. They will keep making more stronger tech. to catch you doing wrong but lets say it works….people know the driving laws to the letter and know there every move is watched,so they are careful not to speed, park wrong, ect..well then they’ll just make more laws so that they make money. For example here in ut. it is against the law to use profane language and you will can fined..Well soon they will probably put a mic. on poles and walls to listen. spitting on the sidewalk is also illegal,and you have to walk in the direction of traffic flow on your side of the road..Now they don’t really inforce these laws but if a computer will auto.. print a ticket to be mailed i’m sure they probably would..if tomorrow they started enforceing all these laws and everyone got a ticket in there mailbox it probably wound’nt fly, so what they are doing is slowly invadeing your privicy and geting you used to it 1 step at a time. Sometimes other people drive my car, how will I know I was driving if i don’t recieve that ticket instantly..I own pin hole cameras, a tapping device that hears through walls and have technolgy in my car that i can park in front of your house and listen to your phone calls or even scan channels and make a preset button to open your garage door, and how many people have valuble shit there, or a locked door to prevent me from going deeper into your home. I used to run with gangs in california now lucky for everyone I turned around years ago and took a better path. I am just saying that the more someone can learn about you the more of a victim they are. And thugs can get any thing not sold in stores, I know this for a fact because I have owned weapons that are olny issued to police and milltary, my roomate has a camcorder with x-ray vision, i’m sure you can find one online. But everything used to protect you will fall into the wrong hands within 5 years, tell me if i can stop infront of your house jump on a laptop and check if your home with this new tracking system will you feel safe.

Glenn June 26, 2006 7:54 PM

I was hired to take some pictures of the front of a property where the cuttent tennants were being evicted. Later that night I got an extremely vulgar and threatening mesage on my answering maching. I was told by the police department the woman must have heard my plate registry over the radio. My question – was there probably cause to run my plate? I hadent even known the police were contacted untill I got the vulgar mesage on my phone from the woman who overheard my plate registry.

There was no crime, The police officer simily stated he assumed I was a private invetigator hired because of the pending evection and police like to know who they are dealing with. Is this right?

Miriam of Roslindale July 5, 2006 11:28 PM

All of this surveillance is disturbing. A little here, a little there and next thing you know, you realize that you are under surveillance the entire day. My entire route home, there are cameras along the main streets. There are cameras around where I park my car, there are cameras in the banks, there are cameras aimed at most streets in Downtown Boston. There are cameras in the hallways of my building, and on the elevators. I can literally be followed from my street all the way to my place of employ on video. If one is obviously being followed all day via video cameras, that is an invasion of privacy and one should feel uncomfortable. I cant even pause to blow my nose without it being caught on film.

For anyone who believes there is still adequate “privacy”, perhaps you haven’t read about the actions of our president among other things. Now, I have to worry about some anonymous cop taking photos of my vehicle for parking tickets and boots? What if I pulled over because my engine stopped working? I’m going to get a ticket because I had to wait for a tow? What options would I have to appeal, and what are the chances of success? This leaves no room for leniency. As the misplaced data for the military verterans clearly falls into the wrong hands, surely some wayward cop will find a way to generate illegal funds with these capabilities–perhaps rent it out to mobsters and stalkers? Now the police have a history of my routine, perhaps they will also use the cameras to peer INTO vehicle sseeking “probable cause” to search as well and effectively reinstitute profiling. Hmmmm…if I’m illegally parked and I don’t have on my seatbelt, will I get an additional penalty for not wearing it?

Seriously people….another question we should consider—Are these methods being evenly distrubuted accross all communities–city, suburubs, black, white, rich, poor? Are there jobs being eliminated because a cop is not physically present handing out tickets? This idea reflects less contact by the police with the community whom they claim to serve, and turns the police into tools to generate revenue. Impersonal, distant policing sounds like a pretty stupid idea to me. Surveillance followed by immediate punishment. Next there will be robots that give us electrical shocks for jaywalking right after it snaps our photos.

Imagine, a few years ago there was talk about reinstituting the concept or more foot patrols in neighborhoods to foster better relationships and a sense of trust. “Commuity Policing” was found to be more effective and invaluable. What ever happened to that? What’s next, surveillance in the prisons without the physical presence of guards as even meals are distributed from vending machines? Oh dear…I may have given the lunatics in power a new idea…….

Ray August 5, 2006 12:13 PM

I say if you dont want your car to get booted then park in a parking lot and suck up the $20 a day, then you will have some privacy. or just suck it up and pay your tickets. they are doing this on public streets and we all pay taxes to use these streets, why should people who break the law be allowed to get away with it?

Jacob August 24, 2006 7:55 PM

I would like a plate running thing that is free that i can download on my laptop anyone know of any?

Ed December 1, 2006 7:45 AM

A better solution to all of this snoping on people is to kill all the lawyers, burn all the insurance companies and banks down and there will be many trillions of dollars saved for eliminating poverty and ignorance worldwide …. and then everything will be cool.

blue February 5, 2007 4:11 PM

I’m sorry to say but with the new laws that went into place recently regarding The Patriot Bill, a camera scanning all license plates is nothing comparaed to the Vast array of new technology that will be introduced and used on the public shortly. You have no rights for if you read all the new wording of these laws and how the authorities can obtain and use them is unbelievable. Honestly if they wanted they could arrest us all right now for Conspiracy if they so choose, by us just conversing about how we feel about the Tech. being used to scan our Vehicle plates. Funny, the terrorist bill was all they needed to take away your privacy, and we all voted it in. Why don’t you read it, and all the agencies that have combined and the technology they have in place right now. The car issue is just a fraction of what is to come in loss of privacy. Really is sad to me, we have lost our freedoms and people have not even realized it yet. You should all read these bills quite interesting.

Anonymous March 17, 2007 10:12 PM

You guys need to keep in mind that driving is a priveledge, not a right. The state issues tags and maintains their own records associated with those tags. There is nothing draconian about mass scanning tags.

Now, if they logged into gps systems to track where everybody was going, then there might be a privacy issue.

Pl8man March 19, 2007 3:50 PM

I am more familiar with ALPR than anyone who has posted anything on this site, the best I can tell. There appear to be some reasonable concerns, but an awful lot of knee-jerk reactions and unreasonable expectations of the technology. No one is going to “track you home”, or figure out “when you are on vacation” and so on. The data simply is not available to anyone to do so, and they wouldn’t really be able to make those decisions based on the condition of the data itself.

ALPR systems are used to catch toll violators (drove throught the unattended lane without a valid RFID tag), parking facility violators (“lost my ticket” – ALPR shows when you parked and for how long), stolen vehicles, on-street parking violators, access control (open the gate, let the car in if the plate is on the list) and a few other Intelligent Transportation applications.

The UK does have a boatload of ALPR cameras (thousands) watching traffic on all major motorways, and this is for computing journey time statistics (one ITS application) along a given route, which is made public for everyone’s use. The plate number is encrypted at each point where it is collected and encrypted the same way each time. It cannot be deciphered to the original registration plate number (no, it cannot), but the unique number can be used to track the journey times of those vehicles whose number was captured and encrypted. No images are kept on the journey time systems. There are systems like this in North America as well, and no one gets any data that has any meaningful use to anyone else.

The numbers that are captured on the UK congestion charging scheme (vehicles entering into London) are not encrypted and are kept, as all vehicles are billed a “toll” for traveling into London – but they all know this is going to happen on that particular roadway.

Speed cameras and red-light cameras only collect license plate data if you speed or if you run a red light.

I’m sure that Boston suggests AutoVu own the data because Boston PD haven’t bought the system and are only trying it out and I am sure AutoVu has no use for the data.

Most of the “cameras” that people speak about seeing on all the streets they travel on are really sensors looking at the intersection to detect and count vehicles in order to control the traffic signals. They do not capture images of the cars or of the plates although they look like standard cameras.

Tom April 9, 2008 3:20 PM

I have never received junk mail until I got a Missouri driver’s license. Imagine that, a state department selling your address for money. How much can they get for license plate numbers and names. I also recently purchased some property. I received a letter from a mortgage company to change my payments to twice a month for a fee. They got the information from the county tax office (it is free to the public). If we allow this as citizens, what is next? Chips in our neck.

Mike May 24, 2008 2:55 AM

What happened to the law about “probable cause”? Why should they stop you unless you are obviously doing something wrong? LEOs aren’t paid to go around checking everyone’s plates to see if they did something wrong in the past. If you are not in the act of breaking the law, or are not wanted, they have no reason to check you out.

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