Smile, Mr. Orwell

Back in May of 2006 I did a couple of brief riffs on Automatic License Plate Recognition technology.

It was my belief then — and is my belief now — that ALPR technology is too overreaching.

To put into simpler language the potential for abuse of ALPR technology is far greater than the potential for good.

There is no reason at all to have a database that shows anyone — much less the government — the physical location of every car in your area once a day.

Or twice a day, four times, what ever.

Yes, I realize that the ALPR system will vastly improve the number of stolen vehicles located.

Yes, I realize that other crimes will be solved — although not nearly as many as are claimed — by the ALPR systems.

I also realize that power corrupts; I realize that Mission Creep Is Inevitable; and — most importantly — I realize that government safeguards on stored private data and personal information are ALWAYS loosened, NEVER tightened.

The invasion of privacy, coupled with the staggering potential for abuse — both official and personal — means that the ALPR database systems need to be drowned at birth.

I understand that there are some folks out there who don’t hold with my bleak outlook on this system.

Fortunately — or not, depending on where you live — Great Britain has chosen to guinea-pig the system for us.

Seems like the British government is going to use their ALPR system to track 50 million plates per day — and hold that information in a searchable database for five years.

Do note, if you would, the part about officers being “encouraged to fully and strategically exploit the database to reconstruct the whereabouts of drivers”.

My particular favourite, however, has to be this quote:

Companies bidding to run the pay-as-you-go driving schemes have been asked to come up with a system to impose a minimum charge on motorists.

The charges would be imposed at all times and not just on the busiest roads or during rush hours.

The proposals are part of Government plans to encourage more people to use public transport or walk to fight rising obesity levels.

Remember what I said earlier about official abuse? No doubt “the chiillll-dreeennn!” were used as the excuse — but excuse or no, this is official abuse.

And I can’t wait to see what other official abuses uses for the ALPR database the British Government will come up with.

Think it can’t happen here? Think our money-grubbing city, county, State and Federal governments will be able to keep their paws out of this brand-new shiny money-pot?



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31 thoughts on “Smile, Mr. Orwell”

  1. The book might more accurately have stated Big Brother is fleecing you.


  2. It’s not as bad as you think – it’s worse.

    These cameras will be planted on every police car, and every traffic light. As soon as a “wanted” (for whatever reason) license plate is seen by a camera, police will be notified. They will probably also be notified of cars with covered or missing license plates. And if police aren’t in the immediate area, the system will automatically track the car anyway, so whenever they are free, they can just stop on by to pick it up. Speeders will just have tickets mailed to them. Auto theft will be all but a thing of the past. While some criminals will take to switching out plates, most won’t. When the police want to check the whereabouts of a certain car for a certain date, all they have to do is punch it up in the computer. People will be selected and deselected as suspects in crimes based on the locations of their cars. The information will be stored indefinitely; probably for enough years that they won’t get rid of it until it’s just too old to be useful for anything. This will become an incredibly effective tool for law enforcement, the like of which we haven’t seen since the invention of the license plate itself. Seriously, think about how many crimes could be solved when these cameras are absolutely everywhere, recording the location of each and every car in the country at every block. There’s absolutely no way our government would turn this down. Oh, and as far as being a society of surveillance, that’s already happened. This marks a difference in degree, not kind. Politicians will approve for obvious reasons. Civilians will be convinced that it’s for their own good, for the children, to prevent crime, to keep them safe, and if you’re not doing anything wrong you don’t have anything to worry about anyway.

  3. Now if they could just get Osama to register a car legally, put the tags on, and wait for police to catch up with him . . . .

    When they get set up for invasive monitoring for guns, knives, number 3 pencils, . . . , unapproved books, then it will be a bureaucratic self soiling festival.

  4. And given that we know that these systems don’t work – look at this example of a tractor which couldn’t drive a few miles being given a congestion charge fine (the charge for daring to want to drive in London during work hours…)
    (this isn’t the only one – I know I’ve seen one prior to this, but can’t find a link to it)
    The concept of “Innocent until proven guilty” has all but disappeared in the UK (witness – taking the personal details (including bank accounts) of all Arun local authority workers (this includes not just council staff, but NHS, Fire, Job Centre etc) plus retired workers/their spouses if they receive a pension, just in case any of them are fraudulently claiming benefits…. This is again, not the only case, but one of the few where they chose to fight it publically – most councils roll over and show their bellies for these requests. Bear in mind all of the personal data which has been lost by government or related agencies over the last few years – most of these are Audit Commission request related (no link to that – I know someone who works inside the AC))
    Going to stop ranting now and continue my plans to run away to a little island in the Pacific…

  5. I think Plegmfatale nailed it: it’s not so much the criminal side of things that I’m wary of (my car is leagal and I don’t speed except to keep up with motorway traffic), it’s the pay-as-you-drive scheme that’s irksome.

    Basically, I think the government just cottoned on to the fact that they’re not getting as much cash in ciggy tax now they’ve banned smoking. In looking for another addiction they can squeeze us on, they’ve gone back to their old favourite; cars.

    Their new pet idea is effectively a congestion charge applied to every road and at all times. This camera network is the first step in that plan.

    I don’t worry about the government attempting to spy on me – I have enough exposure to the type of people it employs to know how truly incompetent the vast majority are. The biggest security issue is someone leaving a chunk of the data on a memory stick in a public place.

    One does have a mild inclination to go around vandalising any CCTV camera now, though.

  6. “Never tightened” isn’t quite right. In the last 2 years, concealed carry records in several states have seen tightened control.

  7. Hi LD

    If you think that ALPR/ANPR systems are bad, check this out.

    “Innocent until proven guilty” has been trashed in the UK.

  8. Well, we could make the argument that such data could be collected…

    As long as there is a public listing of every trace on every vehicle owned by the government authority that runs the camera system. And perhaps a public trace on every employee’s personal car.

    What, do they think they’re too good for that?

  9. Seems to me that a well-placed .22LR round would be appropriate–right into the lens.

  10. Read ‘Anthema’ by Ayn Rand. You can see where we’re going to end up.
    The walking and bicycle ploy sounds just too much like ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ to me.
    Whatever happened to individual responsibility? Oh, but wait; I forgot about Mr. Clinton and his abuses and excuses.
    It’s not going to get any better, folks, until the people of this country revolt-and for whomever in government is monitoring this blog, dearie me, I said ‘revolt’ better tool up your spyware and watch me go out to the Whistle Stop and have a chicken strip basket. I’m bound to be fomenting riot and ruin.

  11. The pay-as-you-go system is where, if you’ll excuse the pun, the big money is going to be. The systems are, at least for now, too expensive to put on every police car. That might change, or it might not.

    However, a little thing called “Open Road Tolling” is where the pay off will be. No toll booths, no transponder, nothing but high speed, high definition cameras connected to a database.

    There are advantages to the technology, but it’s not the technology that causes problems. It’s peopleware, if I might invent a phrase.

  12. I’m seeing the cameras as an adjunct to mandatory transponder installation in every car. Over at the Dragonfly I have a series on how I see this being implemented here in the US of A. Governor Deval Patrick here in Marxistchusetts is already on record as favoring instituting a ‘highway use fee’ as a way of fattening government coffers. It goes on from merely having cameras to real Sci-Fi ideas that have been put out there in the MSM. If I may be so bold as to plug my blog, here’s a link to my series called The Road System.

    Posts are in reverse chronological order so you’ll want to scroll down to An Orwellian Nightmare (posted one year ago tomorrow) and read up from there.

  13. ..Too expensive for patrol cars now..

    If a server can run it today, a cellphone can run it 3 years from now. Every patrol car will have a computer capable of it onboard very shortly. The only question is whether or not it gets blocked, otherwise it WILL be used.

  14. Sorry, but I’ve had enough of the government doing things for my own good.
    Why are we letting them do this to us?

  15. If you have a cell phone, your activities are already being monitored and tracked.

  16. I think we need to change the direction of abuse in the term “official abuse”

  17. There are bad points, you’re right – but as a (still slightly at least) liberal copper, I’m all for ANPR.

    At the moment, the details are on file anyway, and I’m sure it’s the same in the US. It just means that at least we can find out easily and use the information!

    I have been using ANPR on and off for about four or five years now – we don’t get any more checks or information than we did when we did the checks on the vehicle manualy, it’s just a hell of a lot quicker and scans more cars.

    Over the past six months alone I would say I have had well over twenty arrests due to ANPR activations, and over the past month I have had about ten that were either ANPR activations or manual checks by myself (not enough Police Cars have ANPR yet as it is way too expensive – only traffic patrol and specialist ANPR vans set up for operations).

    This is not counting the many, many drivers I have stopped and “stuck on” for no insurance or no driving licence because of it.

    The arrests I have been involved with from ANPR are numerous – only one traffic offence has ended up on arresting; and to be honest, msot trafficy things I would notice myself. Bad drivers lead me to do checks on their cars anyway.

    But I have been involved in the arrest of someone from Scotland for Murder, three or four serious GBHs, a rape, and numerous wanted on warrants from ANPR. All these on cars that I wouldn’t have looked twice at normally.

    The biggest fault we find is when an ANPR activation of an LoS (Stolen) vehicle is put up over the radio and everyone is tucked up dealing.
    This happens way, way too much…

    I don’t have a lot of trust in the Government to do things right either, but they have this information at hand already. I DO have a lot more trust in coppers, so why not let them have the info to do their job better?

  18. What do you think of the concept of car-mounted cameras, without the tracking? Right now, we have, I suppose, the technology to track where every plate is run in the US. It’s not done, except as an “off-line search.”

    But I had a demo of one of these systems presented to me a couple of months ago, and I was impressed. It reads every plate that it passes, even almost edge-on (better than the human eye can read it), and includes the templates for all 50 states’ and the territories’ plates. I often fail to run a plate from out of state– plates that are probably the most likely to be on vehicles of interest– because I can’t from a distance make out what state it’s from. (There are often many types of plates from each state.) During the demo, the sales dude parked his car outside the p.d. and chatted with me, and 20 minutes later we went out to his car and found that it (which had the system mounted on it) had gotten a hit for a DWI warrant that had driven by. It also showed a picture of the vehicle, and gave the GPS location.

    Most interesting was the technique that they showed me, in which a hard drive stores what the camera sees for 100 hours, and if, say, a homeowner comes in this afternoon to report that yesterday while he was gone, his house was broken into, you could check his GPS coordinates in your patrol car, and see if your car logged a license plate of a car parked in the driveway there. Boom: instant lead. The thing is, the HDD is on a constant loop, and is not archived beyond the loop. The data is not centralized.

    In addition, the plate readers allow the officer to be paying more attention to his driving rather than reading plates and either calling them in or typing them in on the laptop. This amounts to greater safety for all.

    Useful stuff for the street cop, and not necessarily Big Brother-esque.

  19. Well, if this ANPR really such a great ideer, area trace, then why not just cut out the chase and install microchips in all of us like we’re doing with our pets now? Especially as soon as something that small is GPS-capable? I’m sure it would never be a nightmare for anyone like they say in the movies. They’re just trying to scare us. It’d be for our own good, really.

    What is so tedious to me about this is that like other things put in place to combat crime, this will serve to incommode the law-abiding citizen while those bent on mischief will develop their own cunning and technologies to subvert the system. Criminals never take a holiday, and their willingness to adapt will ensure they’ll always have an occupation. The irony of all this, of course, is that if they spent the time and energy on a real job that they spend on getting up to mischief, then they’d make a decent living. Someone oughta tell them about that.

    But what to do when our system treats us all like criminals? Call it old-fashioned, but a Nanny State and constant surveillance are anathema to the freedoms enumerated in our Constitution.


  20. The problem is that ANPR can mean two different, but related, things.

    Area trace is happy enough with the benefits of the first, where the R stands for RECOGNITION. In this case the database holds vehicles of interest and alerts when one of them is seen – a relatively benign use.

    This is now changing into automatic number plate RECORDING – which is where the mission creep Lawdog was worried about comes in. In this second version the database contains all vehicles seen, and can then be mined to see which ones might be of interest – potentially a much more dangerous use.

    Governments are happy to elide the two, touting the benefits of the first while glossing over the second as far as possible.

  21. MattG, it’s not the technology, which I agree is terrific. It’s the misuse of the technology that worries me.

    That information may not be stored locally to you for more than 100 hours, but it certainly could be archived indefinitely on the servers.

    OTOH, if you ran the plate manually, the information might be retained on the servers anyway. It’s not uncommon (around here at least) to hear a dispatcher telling a unit that a plate was run recently by another PD or another officer in the same PD. In our state, even vehicle inspection data comes up when a tag is run.

    I’d be much more comfortable with technology if information for tags that come back clean was purged of some of the data such as GPS coordinates.

  22. The system would be tolerable if it was real time only, ie did not store information, but simply alerted an officer to any wanted plate he passed while on patrol.

    When you start storing data and reconstructing travel patterns, you are just one step short of implanting RFID chips in all of us and bringing on a complete Tin Foil Apocalypse.

  23. I predict that counterfeit plates and window tinting become popular over there.

  24. I don’t think it can happen _here_, at least not in the next decade or so.

    The reason is that this has happened already in 13 of 16 german states, and that every single law governing automatic detection and reading of license plates, regardless of how the data is used, is unconstitutional, unless it is for the purpose of determining Autobahn tolls for lorries/trucks.

    We guinea-pigged that system already 🙂

  25. Little, are you saying that the German government actually pays attention to the Constitution of your country?

    Wow, what a concept. Wonder how we can get that going here in the US?

  26. What this does is to remove the last way to travel anonymously. And of course, the end goal will be to prevent insurrection by the populace.

  27. Black Ice:

    That is not at all what I am saying. These thirteen laws were all enacted by the government, then found unconstitutional and retroactively declared void by the constitutional court.

    The Government on the other hand signed into law a bill requiring telecom companies to save and keep the following data: Who called, emailed, text messaged or internetted whom and when, and the subject lines of email, and the contents of cellphone text messages. Plus the locations of any mobile devices incolced in the above activities.


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