Luke O'Brien 07.25.06
Two Civica cameras crown a Los Angeles Police Department cruiser rigged to read license plates. An infrared camera records license plates with a strobe that flashes passing cars. A digital camera grabs images of the surrounding environment to use in investigations. The equipment helps police find stolen cars and catch wanted persons.
WASHINGTON -- Jealous lovers may soon have an alternative to sniffing for perfume to catch a cheating mate: Just follow their license plate.
In recent years, police around the country have started to use powerful infrared cameras to read plates and catch carjackers and ticket scofflaws. But the technology will soon migrate into the private sector, and morph into a tool for tracking individual motorists' movements, says former policeman Andy Bucholz, who's on the board of Virginia-based G2 Tactics, a manufacturer of the technology.
Bucholz, who designed some of the first mobile license plate reading, or LPR, equipment, gave a presentation at the 2006 National Institute of Justice conference here last week laying out a vision of the future in which LPR does everything from helping insurance companies find missing cars to letting retail chains chart customer migrations. It could also let a nosy citizen with enough cash find out if the mayor is having an affair, he says.
Giant data-tracking firms such as ChoicePoint, Accurint and Acxiom already collect detailed personal and financial information on millions of Americans. Once they discover how lucrative it is to know where a person goes between the supermarket, for example, and the strip club, the LPR industry could explode, says Bucholz.
Private detectives would want the information. So would repo men or bail bondsmen. And the government, which often contracts out personal data collection -- in part, so it doesn't have to deal with Freedom of Information Act requests -- might encourage it.
"I know it sounds really Big Brother," Bucholz says. "But it's going to happen. It's going to get cheaper and cheaper until they slap them up on every taxicab and delivery truck and track where people live." And work. And sleep. And move.
Privacy advocates worry that Bucholz, who wants to sell LPR data to consumer data brokers like ChoicePoint, knows what he's talking about.
"We have pretty much a Wild West society when it comes to privacy rights," says Jay Stanley, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union. "The overall lesson here is that we really need to put in place some broad-based privacy laws. We need to establish basic ground rules for how these new capabilities are constrained."
Current laws don't constrain much. Just as it's legal for the paparazzi to take pictures of celebrities in public, it's legal for anyone to photograph your license plate on the street. Still, there aren't enough LPR units in service yet to follow your car everywhere.
The systems, which cost around $25,000 and are made by G2 Tactics, Civica, AutoVu and Remington Elsag Law Enforcement Systems, among others, have been sold mostly to major police departments around the country.
Police in cities such as Los Angeles use them to hunt down stolen cars and felony vehicles like getaway cars. And parking-enforcement officers use LPR to collect money -- lots of it. In the first 12 hours after New Haven, Connecticut, deployed a G2 Tactics LPR to crack down on parking violations, the city towed or booted 119 cars, resulting in a $40,000 windfall, according to Bucholz.
LPR cameras, which are usually around the size of a can of tomato sauce, can be mounted on police cruisers and powered by cigarette lighters. As the car moves, the camera bounces infrared light off other vehicles' license plates. The camera reads the plates and feeds them to a laptop in real time, where information from an FBI or local database can tell an officer if the car is hot. Some systems can read up to 60 plates per second, and they work at highway speeds and acute angles.
The next step is connecting the technology to databases that will tell cops whether a sexual offender has failed to register in the state or is loitering too close to a school, or whether a driver has an outstanding warrant. It could also snag you if you're uninsured, if your license expired last week or even if your library books are overdue.
The subway has never looked more appealing.
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- I grew up in Chautauqua County, NY. I graduated from Edinboro University of Pennyslvania in 1981 with a BFA in Jewelry and Metalworking. I have been married 31 years. I currently run a small business with my husband. We both enjoy the outdoors and animals a great deal and live on a tiny farm in Western, NY.