Disquietude, part 1

I would imagine that a good many folks are aware of the new digital license plate reading equipment and software. You may even be aware that there are several vendors competing for lucrative city/county/state/federal agency contracts.

What you may not have been aware of — I wasn’t — is the new designs which are intended for mobile use. In other words, they are mounted in/on patrol cars.

Impressive technology. The infra-red cameras are capable of reading license plates at triple digit speeds AND across up to four lanes of traffic AND at angles which I would not have believed capable, at up to 1,500 different license plates per minute per eight hour shift. Automatically.

At first glance, this new technology seems quite the boon for law enforcement. It’s basically a program to read license plates and compare them to a list (stolen vehicles, vehicles involved in felonies, etc.), and if there’s a match, to alert the officer.

Unfortunately, read above where I point out that there are several vendors in competition. That’s when things go head-long into the khazi.

To make the purchase of this very expensive equipment more palatable for various government agencies, the companies have added expanded capabilities along with bells and whistles.

Doesn’t sound very bad, does it?

Well, one of the first extras added seems to have been the ubiquitous GPS receiver.

Ah, I see the light dawning.

The feature is called ‘Geo-fencing’. In a nutshell, ‘Geo-fencing’ is simply inputting a GPS location cross-indexed with a list of license plates that shouldn’t be anywhere near the location. For instance, the GPS coordinates of a school, cross-indexed with the license plates of your local sex offenders. Or the GPS coordinates of a house, indexed with the license plates belonging to Protective Order suspects.

Doesn’t sound too bad, until you realize that the co-ordinats and the index can be whatever the local agency deems necessary.


It gets worse. With the addition of a simple seach-capable data-base, these systems become, and I quote: “An invaluable investigation tool.”

Each patrol car so equipped automatically, and without the input of the officer driving, scans every license plate the patrol car passes, moving or parked. From shift start to shift end. With a max capability up to 1,500 plates a minute. Some of which can read plates across four lanes of busy highway. Some of the higher end models take a picture of the car attached to the plate.

Depending on the model, this information is sent to the central database: either continually, periodically or at the end of the shift, depending on how much money your agency is willing to spend.

Once in said database, anyone who has access can search the database by license plate number, location, time of day, or other variable or combination of variables.

This part of the system is being marketed by telling agencies that if the agencies involved in the D.C. sniper events had had the system, they could possibly have caught the suspects much sooner.

I can see how this system would be a godsend to investigators. Find a vehicle involved in a murder, and with a series of keystrokes know its exact location at an exact time with a picture every time that vehicle passed — or was passed by — a patrol car. Invaluable information.

Dream come true, eh?

I think it’s a screaming nightmare.

Enough patrol cars retrofitted with one of these systems and — deliberately or not — the government will have a record of where each and every car in the area is at least once per shift.

The potential for abuse is awe-inspiring. I have dealt with several officers who had the mistaken impression that TCIC also functioned as a date service; what they could have done with this system makes me physically ill.

Got a sneaking suspicion about the little lady? Give her license plate number to your buddy the cop and find out exactly where she’s been, at what time for the past how-ever-long the system has been in use.

Don’t like guns? Run one of your patrol cars through gunshop parking lots, and see where else those plates have been. It’s for the children, right?

So far, sources tell me that these mobile systems are in use at:
Long Beach PD, CA;
Anne Arundel Co. PD, MD; and
Yonkers PD, NY.

I am informed that agency feedback has been “enthusiastic”.

The fact that I have never heard of this system until now causes the Smell Test alarms to go off.

Nietzsche said: “Those who fight monsters should take care that in the process they do not become monsters.”

Way too close to the monster for me.


Of course, I could just be paranoid. No one else who was enlightened about this at the time I was seemed to be any kind of worried about it.

I don’t care. I don’t like it. I don’t like what a nation-wide linking of the location database in each department will spawn.


Disquietude, part 2 - references
I am ... disquieted.

34 thoughts on “Disquietude, part 1”

  1. The tension seems to be about the record and review later aspect. A similar concern is raised about cameras on the street, hooked up to central monitoring stations.

    Clearly, having a patrol officer view your license plate, in person, at the location where both of you are at the time, is not usually a problem for civil libertarians. In public, there is no expectation of privacy. But the question becomes iffy when one is no longer at that place – is ‘having been there’ different from ‘is there now’? Is ‘recorded by a camera’ different from ‘observed by a human’?

    I tend to think the answer to both of those is “yes”, but I can’t quite articulate why.

  2. Words to live by, like it or not: “Whatever CAN be done with technology WILL be done with technology.”

    The NSA’s “Echelon”. Roadside IEDs set off via cellphone. Computers and computer hackers.

    Somebody will figure out a reflective coating or cover that will mess up this camera gadget. Then we’ll have laws against that.

    Then? I dunno. Somebody will figure out an RF frequency that will muss up a computer chip, and go mobile with a 5KW amplifier…

    And then?

    In the mentime, the snoopers will snoop. It’s what they do.


  3. And so ‘Big Brother’ moves another step ahead. I can see why you’re disquieted. There are way too many ways this could be abused which means that it will be abused. Might be time to work on my ‘switch-a-plate’ device.

  4. “reading license plates at triple digit speeds AND across up to four lanes of traffic AND at angles which I would not have believed capable, at up to 1,500 different license plates per minute “

    My expensive OCR software only has about a 95% accuracy rate on a flatbed scanner with nice crisp 14 point Helvetica bold.

    So what happens when this gizmo reads license plate “ABC 123” as “A8O 1Z8” and declares that Professor Plum was outside the Conservatory at the time of the murder in a vehicle later found to contain a rather suspicious length of Rope?


  5. England is already announced that they are setting up a system using similar technology with the stated purpose of tracking all car movements. The articles I have read about the system the English are using are not as advanced as what you describe.
    Yes you are correct to be worried.
    PS Have you been able to finish part3 of the Pink Gorilla suit ?

  6. ‘dog ~

    I think you need to submit this info to the Electronic Freedom Foundation. Those folks must surely be keeping an eye on it — and it they’re not, they should be.

  7. LawDog I think it was the best click of this mouses life. thanks for the heads up, I dont look for things like this too often. I keep gettin big brother syndrome and jumpin in my underground bunker and making sure my foil hat is on real snug. but it is disturbing what we (good meaning policritters) can do to cut down on crime how bout this scenario:
    In order to make sure that no felony commitincritters buy a gun lets take those biometrics that are on everyones license to drive and make a reader that will scan every individual that walks into a gun store and uploads that info to the local pd 1500 names a min. you wouldnt have to register your gun they did it for you and kept the bad guys from gettin them. 🙁 lawdog this lunacy is killin me.

    Renegade 6
    posted this in on the 1st thread.

  8. I think Joe’s comment is right on. I don’t like it either.

    This needs more attention.

  9. Law Dog I have a question for you regarding shooting on private property and your opinions on encountering an armed citizen. I am askin you because you dont bullshit. thanks.
    edit as you feel the need.

    the skinney.
    I was shooting on 30 acres that I owne and thats not annexed yet and happens to be right next to a shopping centre (no lawdog I was not sniping the people commin out of The Good Book Store with coppies of Da Vince Code) I was fireing into a 25ft thick dam with .308 .223 .45 and .40 nothing thats going to go through 25 ft of earth. I was supprised to see 5 police cars show up on my property. they were responding to a shots fired call from a concerned citizen. I explained that it was county and that it was ok. I was told that they were told by dispatch the same thing that it was county and it was ok for shooting….so why tf were they there why did they come After being told by dispatch that it was ok? I was done shooting and packed up but is there anything that you would want someone to do that would put you more at ease in a similar situation aka lots of loaded guns and a shots fired call? I can try callin dispatch and tellin them whats goin on but I would like to hear what your thoughts are. other than follow the officers instructions I know to me it sounds kinda obvious but someone might overlook it.

    6 out.

    Blog it or email to

  10. Dude,

    As a retread LEO, I can enthusiastically say BULLSHIT – this system suck and is RIPE for abuse by your favorite democratic politican – to get the dirt on their opponents.

    It needs to be scrapped ASAP!

    WAYYYY back when SDPD tried a monitoring system in the patrol cars to see if they could cut down on vehicles accidents and hold officers accountible – it smacked TOO MUCH of Big Brother and ALL the cars had the data cables cut in their trunks using heavy-duty cable cutters. It was never tired again.

    I can only hope so much for this type system – but you know the damn socialists – it’s for the good of the CHILDREN!


  11. Dog, I can honestly see the benefit in this system. For all we know, the next Jeffrey Dahmer could be caught by this technology. OTOH, I don’t need you guys knowing my every move. There needs to be a strict, standardized code of use and ethics when it comes to this technology. The opportunity for this gizmo to be abused is right there at the flick of a switch. Standardize usage and rules nationwide so this doesn’t get out of control, or we will see guys like Sheriff Joe Arpaio in AZ adding more beds to his tent city.

  12. Sorry, but excusing technology like this forced on the (mostly unknowing) populous to catch the next Jeffrey Dahmer is absurd. Hey, I know, lets pass a bunch of gun laws that will prevent someone from climbing up a bell tower and shooting people! The laws will of course be strictly enforced and no one in a position of power would ever abuse them.

    Where does it stop? Why are people so scared/apathetic/stupid that they accept things like this? Cripes, maybe teevee really does rot the brain…

  13. Lawdog,
    I can understand the disquiet, but once the technology to do something exists someone will build a device to do it, and someone else will buy that device and abuse it. Think of guns, guns exist so some folks will abuse them, then other folks will try to ban the device because some folks abuse them.

    Just like guns, I think we need to put legal safeguards on how the device can be used and severe penalties for abuse of the device. How about no access to the record without a warrant? How about the device will read plates, but if the plate doesn’t show up on a list of plates of interest it’s deleted? Of course there needs to be a process to make a plate a plate of interest. So cops who scan for someone’s girlfriends plates without authorization become ex-cops.

    Remember, the basis of our Constitution is that the citizens tell the government what it can and can’t do. Governments are like puppies, they’ll go wherever you let them and sometimes they need to be smacked in the nose to keep them where they belong.

  14. How about Mary Jane Rottencrotch down at Data Entry having a bad day and entering Mr. Billy Badass’s license plate of ABC-123, but having a fingerslip and entering ACB-123? Not only trouble with bad reads, but with bad entries. No, this looks way too easy to screw up to me

  15. Used properly, it could be a valuable tool,…but the potential for improper and oppressive use is huge. Joe is right.

    Big brother doesn’t have to watch you all the time, with this technology he can always find you when he wants you, and he can always see where you have been, but I’m afraid the Genie is out of the bottle…and I don’t mean Barbara Eden.

    Folks are already putting tinted, dirty or prismatic plastic covers over their plates to fool radar cameras and red-light cameras…measure and countermeasure, …bigger sword, better shield. Wonder what a spritz of oil and a handful of glass beads would do to the machine readability?
    Doug in Colorado

  16. Like Joe Allen, the first thing I thought of when I read this was the probable error rate. It’s going to be at least 1%, and more likely at least 5%. Now, if there is only one license plate number on the watch list, this means a 5% chance that Jeffrey Dahmer II will drive right by you and your computer will miss him – but it’s likely you won’t, so if it doesn’t make cops too complacent it probably increases the chance of catching him. OTOH, with this thing in thousands of cop cars, a few hundred times a day some other license will misread as a match, and some cop gets a thirty-second adrenaline rush before noticing that it’s the wrong kind of vehicle entirely and the license is off by one digit, too.

    But then some idiot-genius will realize that they can clean up the unpaid parking ticket problem by putting those 100,000 numbers into the system – and for every cop driving in traffic with this scanner, it will be popping up a message every few minutes, of which the vast majority will be false alarms. So you silence the buzzer and ignore the screen…

    Of course, there’s all the potential for deliberate mis-use, too. And the not-so-bright cops that won’t check out whether the description and plates match to their own eyes, and call the SWAT team as a backup before they mistakenly pull some grandmother over for murder and cannibalism.

  17. Makes them-there telescreens look pathetic by comparison, don’t it? If you don’t like this sh*t, you had better move to Mars, because this planet is FUBAR.

  18. I’d like to know what happens when some of these units get stolen from the company that makes them, or it sold by a corrupt employee to a gen-u-ine terrorist? Then the technology gets used against us, as the BG’s will know in real time where all the police cars or fed.gov vehicles in the area are. Or it can be used to kidnap or assassinate someone by knowing exactly where they are at any given instant.

    This stuff is out of control. There are no more secrets, there is no more privacy, anymore. Sometimes this will enable perps to be caught in or even before the act, but for the most part it is a scary prospect. Knowledge is power, and power corrupts. Put too much knowledge about the populace in government hands, and you’ll have the inevitable corruption that near absolute power brings.

    I don’t know the solution, but I’d say that putting some very tough restrictions on the use of the information is critical – it shouldn’t be usable for fishing expeditions, nor should the records be maintained any longer than 1 day at most (sounds like the NICS check, doesn’t it – and you’ll have those who want to archive it forever). I want to see a requirement for a warrant to be necessary to view and/or save any of the information.

  19. This is disturbing.

    Just one more very, very disturbing bit of data.

    And the most disturbing part about it? That it there are people that it doesn’t disturb at all.

    “No reasonable expectation”, my ass; it is plain and simple none of the government’s damned business where I am, where I’m going, or where I’ve been.

  20. LawDog, you continue to give me faith in our public servants.

    I don’t know the solution, but I’d say that putting some very tough restrictions on the use of the information is critical

    I figure the solution is actually very simple. We go back to just being folk. Anonymous folk. Why hang an ID plate off your car? Seriously. Criminals act like criminals. They’re fairly easy to spot from what I gather. A fellow I know from work once considered working as an officer and went on a ride-along with a local beat cop. They’re tooling down a road and some yahoo goes to make a turn in front of them, sees that it’s a cop car, and then whips around and goes the other way!

    Well the light bar went on at that point… they weren’t doing anything nutty before that, but it was pretty obvious that they changed their minds when they saw a patrol car.

    Criminals are idiots. If they were smart criminals they’d be in Washington D.C.!

    Have you ever met somebody that came off as a 100% certifiable genius at random in public? No?

    Have you ever met a 100% certifiable idiot in public? Yes?

    Idiots and criminals, though I repeat myself there, tend to make themselves very obvious.

    This is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

  21. How is this different from when cops started using computers connected to the DMV databases 20 years ago? Or when they started using radios 70 years ago?

    Doesn’t blaming the technology for having a potential for abuse excuse the people who are actually responsible for the abuse?

    Police cars also have lots of guns in them. The potential for abuse is quite astounding…

  22. “How is this different from when cops started using computers connected to the DMV databases 20 years ago?”

    Most cops would use the DMV database only when they had a particular reason to suspect a license number or a name was connected to a crime. They simply don’t have the time to write down every license number that passes them and look it up, so they’ll (mostly) stick to what arouses their suspicions. That’s a whole lot different from this system, with their computer keeping track of everyone who happens to pass near a cop car.

    I’m sure the DMV link also had abusers, from cops who’d do lookups for third-parties, to the ones that tried to use it as a dating service. (Sex = F, age = 18 to 24, marital status = single, now show me some pictures! Umm, how desperate do you have to be to try to pick a girlfriend from driver’s license photos?) But with this system, that abusive cop – or any semicompetent hacker – not only can get your name, address, and picture, but he can also deduce where you work and where you hang out. I don’t see how it would solve enough crimes to be worth the ones it would enable.

  23. The dog said: “I have dealt with several officers who had the mistaken impression that TCIC also functioned as a date service”

    If I understand what you’re saying, cops were looking for dates in a database of criminals? I hope you’re not implying that Raising Arizona was a documentary. 😎

  24. Everyone’s seen the automatic radar unit on the side of the road that dispays your speed as it passes. Tie that into this system, and BINGO — automatic speeding tickets every time you pass one of these things at 1 MPH over the limit. Get home after work one day and have three or four citations sitting in your e-mail inbox…

    In addition, how about adding a scanner that reads the traction coeeficient of the road, lighting, range of visibility, temperature, humidity, time of day, angle of the sun, and decides you’ve violated the basic speed law, even though you’re already going less than the posted limit?

    This kind of thing can be done with off-the-shelf technology. It’s just a matter of putting the pieces together.

    Similar automated systems could track small driving errors at every intersection and cite every occurence. Of course they’d lower the average fine so an individual occurence would be small, maybe even less that a dollar per. They wouldn’t want the revenue generation source to dry up and blow away after the first week because every licensed driver has been suspended or revoked…

  25. If I understand what you’re saying, cops were looking for dates in a database of criminals? I hope you’re not implying that Raising Arizona was a documentary. 😎

    Nope, despite being taught differently, a small number of cops operates under the impression that TCIC/NCIC is there so that if they see a young lovely, they can run her through the system, thus getting her address and other information, to assist in developing a … social relationship.

    TCIC/NCIC is an investigation tool — not, I say again my last not a dating service — and there’s is little that will get your butt fired faster if I have anything to say about it than using a State/Federal database to get into some honey’s skirt.


  26. So, given that they have GPS and time tracking in them, i could pass a highway patrol officer at one end of New York on my way to pennsylvania, and three non-stop hours later, pass another one at the other end of new york, who…because the basic laws of physics concerning time and speed….can determine that i have on average travelled 8mph over the speed limit, and be able to pull me over and give me a speeding ticket without the first officer ever having knowledge of the incedent, and without the second officer himself having to put fourth any effort other than donut diving in order to catch my speeding arse. Sounds like a bunch of bull cr@p to me if i’ve ever heard it

  27. anony: You’ve got the idea. Then there’s the case where you’re just going down to the corner store near Buffalo, and 1 hour earlier someone else’s plate in Albany was misread by the system as your number, so you get a ticket for about 100 miles over the speed limit.

  28. Right now, as Dog says, the abuse of the current databases is incredible.

    Cops running girls/guys they see and want the address of, running people/tags/property for friends and sometimes for pay, searching III databases when they’re not legally in the right to…

    Add this crap to that and it scares hell out of me to think of it.

  29. Anyone know why cars have licenses? To identify the car!
    So you in effect are arguing that we deny the cops a tool to do more effectively what they were designed for. Bullpucky. There can be no expectation of privacy in public. Frankly I want a permanent register at every major intersection.

  30. Can you write the names of the companies making these systems? Maybe there is an opportunity for a boycott here, or at least we can let them know what we think…

  31. Hello LawDog,

    Thanks for the heads-up. I couldn’t agree more that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Never give anyone – even an LEO – a blank check.

    Jeff Deutsch

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