Evolution of License Plate Reader Cameras in the US

Automatic license platereader cameras (ALPR) are game-changers when it comes to law enforcement and surveillance.

In the past, cops would have to rely on witnesses or themselves to write down the correct numbers on a suspect's vehicle. With human memory as spotty as it is, the results were often a mixed bag. Today's technology features not only ALPR but also online search tools that allow anyone to vin search the owner at AutoDetective of the car.

Do you want to find out who's dumping garbage in your yard? There's software for that.

The Origins of ALPR

Britain's Police Scientific Development Branch started developing ALPR technology in 1976. Prototypes were working by 1979, and trial systems were set up on Dartford tunnel and the A1 road. Although the first arrest through detection happened in 1981, ALPR technology failed to gain traction until the '90s.

The reason was due to expensive cameras and the absence of reliable camera software. In short, limits of 1980's technology stunted the growth of capturing the license plate information of a moving car.

Automatic License Plate Readers Today

Today's ALPRs are high-speed camera systems controlled by a computer. The most common mounting locations for ALPRs are:
·         Streetlights.
·         Telecommunications poles.
·         Highway overpasses.
·         Mobile trailers.
·         Police cruisers.

When traffic cams are present, chances are that one or more run on ALPR software. ALPRs can capture all license plate numbers the camera can view, together with the date, time, and location. The data may include pictures of the vehicle, driver, and passengers, which are then uploaded to a central server.

ALPR providers say that the police can use the stored information to detect criminal activity or solve a crime. Law enforcement agencies can also choose to share their knowledge with other agencies, such as additional police jurisdictions or even Interpol.

How do ALPRs Work?

Automated License Plate Readers have two categories: stationary and mobile.

Stationary ALPR cameras

These cameras are on fixed locations such as telephone poles, traffic lights, freeway exits, or on entrance gates. Stationary ALPR cameras only capture vehicles in motion that pass within view. Several cameras installed along a single thoroughfare can provide the direction and speed a car is traveling.

Over time, the stored data can reveal how many times a particular license plate passes a given location. Agencies use stationary ALPR cameras in conjunction with speed/traffic light enforcement systems and toll assessment. Sometimes, authorities move fixed ALPR cameras and install them on surveillance vans parked at gun shows or political rallies.

Mobile ALPR cameras

These camera systems are often found on police patrol cars, allowing officers to capture data as they drive around the city. Mobile ALPRs are also effective at capturing license plates of parked cars. A patrol car equipped with an ALPR camera can capture hundreds of license plate numbers from vehicles in a public parking lot in minutes.

Automated License Plate Readers help not only law enforcement agencies, but also private entities. Small town police can better enforce the rules and cover a wider area. Private firms and even neighborhood associations can monitor properties and create "virtual gates."
However, ALPR technology isn't regulated, and many people fear that without proper oversight, abuse will happen.

Privacy Concerns Regarding ALPR

Since ALPR systems are available to the general public, many people are raising concerns about privacy. At least there is plenty of oversight when it comes to ALPR and law enforcement. Civilians with access to this technology is a different matter. Spouses can spy on one another. An ex can stalk a former lover, and so on.

However, law enforcement isn't entirely off the hook. Aggregated ALPR data can reveal intimate details about a driver's life. This information can even include activities protected by the First Amendment. Agencies can use ALPR technology to target drivers who frequent religious centers or protests, for example.

When you look at it from an average person's view, ALPR is a lot like mass surveillance. It's pretty disturbing to know that authorities use automatic license plate readers to track millions of people. The clincher here is the fact that the overwhelming majority of tracked individuals are innocent.

What are your thoughts on ALPR? Do you think it's good or bad? Join the discussion! 

My bio: Ben is a Digital Overlord at InfoTracer who takes a wide view from whole system. He authors guides on entire security posture, both physical and cyber. Enjoys sharing the best practices and does it the right way!