The UK Surveillance State’s Finest Export: Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR)

Alexandria VA Dodge Charger Police Car ANPR

A City of Alexandria Dodge Charger police car equipped with mobile ANPR. Two forward facing ANPR units are mounted on the trunk of this vehicle. Photo: Something Original (CC)

Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) might not sound quite as invasive to your privacy as it actually is. James Bridle, perhaps flush with worldwide attention from his much admired Surveillance Spaulder, has written a tremendous history of ANPR, starting in Britain 30 years ago and now aggressively used around the world. In this portion of his lengthy essay at Medium, he discusses ANPR in the United States:

In the United States, implementations have multiplied many times over in recent years. Thanks to lobbying and financial support from insurance companies, Oklahoma and Arizona, among other states, have introduced extensive ANPR networks aimed at catching uninsured drivers. Other deployments, meanwhile, have a more familiar feeling.

When the city of San Leandro, California, purchased ANPR cameras for its police force in 2009, local resident Michael Katz-Lacabe, using a Freedom of Information request, discovered that his car had been captured by the system more than 100 times in a matter of months. The report generated by the local police department included a photograph of him and his daughters getting out of their car in their own driveway. [disinfo ed.: see also this story: Another Way The Police And Private Corporations Track You: License Plates]

Up and down California, cities are using the ring of steel model to surveil citizens. Just a few miles to the north of San Leandro, another adopter is the upmarket enclave of Piedmont: a tiny city of some 10,000 well-heeled residents that is completely encircled by the larger, poorer and more crime-ridden city of Oakland. Piedmont residents, concerned about a spate of burglaries and robberies in their area, recently voted to install 36 cameras, enough to cover every road into or out of the city.

On the other side of the country, New York state, flush with homeland security funding in the years after 9/11, has installed more than 100 cameras, with no limits to how long the data they collect may be retained. In December 2013, Boston Police halted its license plate collection after it inadvertently released more than 68,000 detailed vehicle records to the public, including plate numbers and GPS locations. Every single police department in the Boston region uses ANPR.

The unregulated nature of ANPR in the United States means that the information regularly leaks out, and can be acquired by third parties—or even sold. Among the vendors is a Texas-based company called TLO, which provides so-called data solutions to law enforcement agencies, lawyers, and private investigators. These “solutions” include individuals’ personal information, addresses, employment, relatives and assets. TLO maintains a vehicle sightings database containing, it claims, one billion location records, with an additional 50 million added each month. For $10, anyone can look up a vehicle’s log to see when and where it has been seen, and even obtain the sort of photographic evidence uncovered by Katz-Lacabe.

Not every nation is so enthusiastic about the technology. In Germany, the federal court ruled in 2008 that ANPR systems that keep data without a predetermined reason—such as to track suspected terrorists—violated privacy laws. But this is an isolated position. Complex analysis requires the routine storage of sightings of all vehicles, not just those under immediate suspicion. Indeed, convoy analysis is so powerful that it now comes as a built-in feature of many ANPR systems.

In one of the less-discussed revelations from the recent National Security Agency congressional hearings in Washington DC, the agency revealed that it routinely looks at a network “two or three hops” from any given suspect when analysing the data it picks up. That means it observes not just a person’s direct associates, but associates’ of those associates, and the associates of the associates of the associates.

When dealing with data, it is easy to make connections, which then justifies making further connections. This, in turn, encourages the retention of data for longer and longer periods. The ease of technological analysis makes retention, not deletion, the default option: a subtle twist on the old argument that if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide…

[Read the entire essay at at Medium]


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