Most of us are familiar with traffic cameras that monitor roadways for speeders and red-light runners. But how much do you know about licence plate readers, or LPRs?
Ars Technica has posted one of the most thorough and thoughtful examinations of LPRs to date, and the implications for drivers are fairly staggering. If you're the sort of person who gets antsy at the mention of Big Brother, you might want to skip to another article, because modern technology is making privacy a thing of the past.
WHAT ARE LPRs?
Technically speaking, LPRs aren't all that different than other traffic cameras. Look across the U.S., and you'll find tens of thousands of them attached to street lights, next to traffic signals -- even mounted on moving vehicles.
The software they use is similar, too. Like red-light cams, LPRs take photos of plates, then scan those images to identify license numbers.
The difference is in how data gathered by LPRs gets used.
Red-light cameras, for example, are trained on intersections. Though they film every vehicle that passes by, they often dump that information if a vehicle behaves lawfully. When a car runs a light, however, the data is retained, and the plate is scanned. The images are often reviewed by a human -- frequently, someone hired by the for-profit company that installed the camera system -- and if the driver has, in fact, broken the law, a ticket is dropped in the mail.
LPRs, on the other hand, retain their data for months, years, or in some cases, indefinitely. Scanned plates are matched against databases of stolen cars or vehicles owned by criminals, which can take some time. And even then -- even if a vehicle is found to be in the clear -- the data is sometimes kept on file.
THE PROBLEM WITH LPRs
LPRs are a problem that few people saw coming. In a way, they're a bit like autonomous vehicles. Google, for example, wasn't technically breaking any laws by testing its self-driving cars in California, because the state doesn't stipulate that vehicles have to have human drivers. Who would've ever thought that such a thing would need to be written down?
Similarly, not many people -- other than, say, science fiction writers -- could've envisioned a day when license plates were tracked on streets, in malls, and on college campuses across the nation. Now, the legal system is having to play catch up. Here are a few of the problems that city, state, and other officials will have to address in the near future: