LPR Warning Letters: Innovation or Privacy Invasion?

Published Feb 18, 2012 00:00 AM
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A US city has devised an interesting strategy to combat drug usage: LPR cameras monitor vehicles going into and out of areas with high criminal activity, tracking vehicle usage patterns. Letters are sent to vehicles owners warning them of potential criminal activity to discourage them.

This practices raises important issues of crime fighting techniques and privacy invasion.

The Justification by the City

The Police Chief of this city explains the motivation of their approach:

"The open air drug market is the single greatest contributor to violence, criminal activity and the diminishing of our residents’ quality of life in Camden and it is being funded by every person who swings through the city to buy illegal drugs. While we aggressively target the dealers themselves it’s imperative that the police department takes the steps necessary to disrupt the customers who keep fueling the problem."

The article then explains what the city will do with its LPR results:

"Police will tell registered owners that their vehicles were seen involved in potentially illegal activity. The owners won’t be charged, but they’ll receive letters telling them that police will watch for the vehicles and take action if necessary, authorities said."

The Upside

It appears to us the primary motivation is to scare the sh-t out of people as the program will not and cannot directly arrest people (after all, the evidence is simply that a person drove into an area, not that they did something specifically illegal).

How well it works is certainly dependent on how much fear it generates for the respondent. Certainly, the depth of the person's addiction might impact their response. Nonetheless, some respondents will certainly take heed especially it it is read by their parents or spouses.

The Downside

Inherent in this plan is a certain amount of false positives - i.e., letters to people who just happen to live, visit friends or do non-criminal business in the monitored area. The percentage of false positives is difficult to determine and depends on how the police set their threshold (i.e., how wide an area they cover, what times of day they include visits, how many visits need to be made in a certain time period, etc.). However, false positives are inevitable in such a plan.

At some level the police could argue that no damage is done. The person is not arrested. They simply receive a letter that they can toss in the garbage.

However, being accused or implicated as a potential drug user or dealer can have serious side effects, especially if one's family, friends or co-workers find out about the letter. I would have to imagine, that at the very least, civil liberties groups like the ACLU would find good reason to protest.

The Future

One of the most interesting elements of this plan is that technically it is likely to work quite accurately. Specifically, we are referring to capturing license plates and building a list of matching plates based on police defined criteria. This is definitely not science fiction (unlike other ones the mainstream press talks about like city wide facial surveillance).

As surveillance technologies mature, it will become easier and easier to launch monitoring campaigns that raise deeper privacy concerns like this LPR system in the US.