LPR Privacy Problems Reviewed

By John Honovich, Published Oct 02, 2012, 08:00pm EDT

The Wall Street Journal has released a detailed investigative report that raises significant concerns about privacy threats from the growing use of license plate recognition (LPR, often called ANPR outside of the US).

Here are key points raised:

  • Big Private Suppliers: Private license-plate location databases are being built by car reposession agencies, most notably Digital Recognition Network Inc. of Fort Worth, Texas, and MVTrac of Palatine, Ill. The former claims more than 700 million cars scanned, though a public counter displaying it has now been removed.
  • Selling LPR Data: Soon they hope to start selling access to plate data to bail bondsmen, process servers, private investigators and insurers. "In the next five years, I hope my primary business will be data gathering," says one of these agencies.
  • $50 million in federal grants over the last 5 years for law enforcement agencies to buy LPR systems. Presuming an average camera cost $15,000 that would fund over 3,000 such units.
  • A California county using 49 LPR cameras over 2 years scanned 6 million plates of which 2 million were unique (average of 3 per car). The WSJ was able to obtain all of them through a public-records request act.
  • Broad Access: License plate information can be matched up against driver's personal information by a wide variety of groups including, "government agencies, police, private investigators, insurers, researchers, private toll operators and, in some states, journalists."
  • 37% of large police departments use license plate readers according to a 2010 study.
  • Limited Constraints: Few states have guidelines for using them. Earlier this year, we looked at NYC which allows keeping license plate information for 5 years searchable by their $30 million security system. And in NJ, a city sends letters to license plates detected in areas with drug dealers essentially accusing the car owners of being criminals.
  • The tracking system has some flaws. "It picks up any words on a reflective background," says a technician at the sheriff's department. "Some common road signs show up in the database. "ONEWAY" appears 13,873 times."
  • Show More than just the plate: Security consultant was able to get "a report containing 112 images of his vehicles dating to 2008. The file contained 107 photos of his Tercel and five of his Toyota Prius, which he says is driven less frequently. 'I was surprised there were some pictures where I could actually identify people. Here's one where I'm driving. Here's me in my Cal shirt.'"

The Money Quote

A repo man making big money on this objected to criticism saying:

"I take absolute exception to any government telling me that I can't go into public and take video," [the repo man] says. "That's taking my freedoms away." He estimates his company has snapped "hundreds of millions" of photos of plates nationwide.

Does such freedoms extend to taking 'hundred of millions' of photos of detailed information (license plates), then putting it into a searchable database and selling them to whoever he pleases?

Future

This debate over this will only accelerate as LPR is by far the most accurate and effective video analytic in the security market. With the databases growing and it becoming easier and easier to share and search such information, the potential for serious abuse will clearly grow.

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