License Plate Cameras to Keep Track of Californians Whereabouts

Kaye Beach

July 12, 2009



Welcome to Tiburon.


Your presence has been noted.

The posh and picturesque town that juts into San Francisco Bay is poised to do something unprecedented: use cameras to record the license plate number of every vehicle that crosses city limits

The readers, which use character recognition software, can compare plates to databases of cars that have been stolen or linked to crimes, then immediately notify police of matches, said Police Chief Michael Cronin.

[. . . ]

License plate readers have exploded in popularity in recent years, but Tiburon would be one of the first to mount them at fixed locations – and perhaps the very first to record every car coming or going.

Novel Idea?


Precisely because it has pioneered the use of large numbers of surveillance cameras installed in public places (street-intersections, the sides of buildings, poles erected in public areas, train stations, et al.), England makes the most extensive use of license-plate recognition. The “function creep” in London is especially striking: what started out as a system designed to prevent IRA car-bombers from entering and destroying the City has — quickly but gradually — been turned into a system by which ordinary citizens are charged “road-usage fees.” Not only does such a “creep” generalize suspicion and (irrationally) include law-abiding citizens in the same category as the IRA, it also forces the taxpayers to pay for the surveillance system twice: they paid for it when it was originally installed, back in the mid-1990s, and now they’re paying for it again, in piecemeal fashion, every time the system’s function is creeped from anti-terrorism to toll collection. Were it not for the existence of the anti-terrorist surveillance system, the very idea of “road-usage fees” would never have been approved, let alone enforced by fully automated, computerized devices.


Fron The TTC News Archives


Forrest Wilder
The Texas Observer
Copyright 2009

Deep in the Senate’s version of the massive TXDoT bill is a provision that, if not stripped out in conference committee, will allow local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to install license plate reading cameras on Texas highways. The technology – already in widespread use in surveillance-crazy Britain – is very powerful, enabling the government to automatically photograph the license plates of moving vehicles and check the information against databases. If the system finds a “match,” officers can be alerted.

According to law enforcement, automated license plate recognition systems are extremely efficient at finding stolen vehicles or finding abudcted children. However, the technology could also be used to collect vast amounts of information on the movement of individuals, raising civil liberties and privacy concerns. In Texas, with our proud libertarian streak, those concerns may be especially resonant.

“It’s unacceptable to Texans for the government, particularly the federal government, to be tracking their movements on Texas highways and storing that information indefinitely,” said Rebecca Bernhardt of the ACLU.

Abuses are already occurring in the UK. According to a BBC story from just a week ago:

John Catt found himself on the wrong side of the ANPR [Automatic Number Plate Recognition] system. He regularly attends anti-war demonstrations outside a factory in Brighton, his home town.

It was at one of these protests that Sussex police put a “marker” on his car. That meant he was added to a “hotlist”.

This is a system meant for criminals but John Catt has not been convicted of anything and on a trip to London, the pensioner found himself pulled over by an anti-terror unit.

“I was threatened under the Terrorist Act. I had to answer every question they put to me, and if there were any questions I would refuse to answer, I would be arrested. I thought to myself, what kind of world are we living in?

Bernhardt says that without “meaningful limits,” government authorities may be tempted to use the data for dubious purposes.

In fact, according to documents recently obtained by the Observer through the Texas Public Information Act, license plate information collected in the north Dallas suburbs may soon be entered into an intelligence database maintained by the North Central Texas Fusion System.

“Collin County is getting a license plate recognition system now,” wrote Anita Miller, the wife in the husband-and-wife team that runs the fusion system from New Mexico, to Larry Barclay, of the Arlington Police Department, in a March 18 email. “The plans are for the Fusion System to be able to query that data this year.”

As we highlighted in “Dr Bob’s Terror Shop,” the North Central Texas Fusion System is engaged in an unsettling experiment with data collection and mining.

The architect and operator of the system, Dr. Bob Johnson, the son of Plano Congressman Sam Johnson, attracted attention earlier this year for writing and disseminating a memo that singled out anti-war and Muslim organizations as terror threats and called on law enforcement to “report” the groups’ activities.

The fusion system claims to have several terabyes of data stored on its system from sources as varied as social networking sites (e.g. Facebook or MySpace), jail records, arrest information, transcripts of jailhouse telephone conversations, and other data. This collected information is accessible to some 970 users, mostly law enforcement but also apparently health offciais, private security personnel, fire marshals, and others. Johnson has also deployed data-mining software to look for patterns in the information that might point to criminal or terrorist activities

“I think it is deeply troubling particularly because these fusion centers are not accountable to a specific government entity or have any meaningful privacy oversight,” said the ACLU’s Bernhardt.

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