How would you feel about the police being able to scan your license plate like you would scan a container of creamer at the grocery self-checkout? If you think something like that is something seen only in science fiction, you may not have heard about license plates readers, and law enforcement’s love for them.
70% of local police departments in the United States have license plate readers. Now if you are curious as to whether or not your local law enforcement have taken to these bar code readers for Buicks, take a moment the next time you see a patrol car. Preferably when you are not being pulled over for a traffic violation, of course. The device will probably be suspended off the trunk or the hood of the cruiser at about a 45 degree angle, and look like what you think they would: giant barcode readers. The device is comprised of two cameras, a visible and an infrared camera.
This may seem like state-of-the-art but this technology was developed back in the 1990s by the United Kingdom. With random IRA attacks a real possibility then, the government were coming up with various preventions against car bombs and the like. They developed the license plate readers to track the IRA, combining what data they had collected on suspects with drivers’ license databases. The technology granted them the ability to identify suspects in the vicinity of a crime, deduce the likeliest location for criminal activity, or locate chop shops that were bringing in stolen vehicles. Here we are, nearly three decades later, and the technology is very popular with our own law enforcement. These readers scan the surrounding area, and then using character recognition, come up with the final license plate. Such systems are used to compare license plates with a hot list related to criminal activity. The readers are also used to alert police of vehicles suspect in a crime.
Here’s an example of just one officer in Montgomery County, Maryland, and his use of it. He used a license plate reader to scan more than 48,000 vehicles in 96 hours, spread out over 27 days. This enabled the officer to issue 255 traffic citations, identify 26 drivers with suspended licenses, catch 16 vehicle emission violators, find 4 stolen vehicles, and identify 1 expired license plate.
That’s one officer. In less than a month’s time.
This kind of innovation does not come without cost. License plate readers range between $10,000 and $25,000 per vehicle. Pretty expensive. Police are also putting them on bridges, so that every car crossing can be recorded, and each of those installations costs around $100,000.
There is also a cost of privacy. The police are gathering this data, time and location of vehicles. Some involved in criminal activity, many of them not. They gather this data, they keep it, and they store it. Think about that for a moment—the police can now track where people have been, where they’ve been driving, and what they’ve been doing. Everyone.
So the ACLU is now involved.
I don’t believe they’re going to win this case, though. You are out in public and all the police are doing is taking a picture of you in public. I do think we’ve got to decide if we want to have Big Brother doing this. Between these readers, face recognition software, and street cameras, we should where is the line drawn between security and privacy, and ask how secure the data is when stored. All this is going to lead to a very significant debate, but when you look at just one officer did in Montgomery County, you can see how powerful this technology is.
A research physicist who has become an entrepreneur and educational leader, and an expert on competency-based education, critical thinking in the classroom, curriculum development, and education management, Dr. Richard Shurtz is the president and chief executive officer of Stratfdord University. He has published over 30 technical publications, holds 15 patents, and is host of the weekly radio show, Tech Talk. A noted expert on competency-based education, Dr. Shurtz has conducted numerous workshops and seminars for educators in Jamaica, Egypt, India, and China, and has established academic partnerships in China, India, Sri Lanka, Kurdistan, Malaysia, and Canada.