Cops Test License-Plate Cameras That Store, Trace Data

Jim Redden
The Portland Tribune
October 11, 2008

Portland police are testing a high-tech camera system that rivals anything in a science fiction movie.

It can reach back in time and track your movements across the city — and even produce photos of your previous locations.

But — while some are raising Big Brother civil liberties questions about the concept — the police promise they will only use it to solve crimes, like finding stolen cars or locating wanted criminals.

The system features a series of cameras that mount on patrol cars that automatically read and photograph the license plates of all passing vehicles — including those parked along the sides of the streets. Plates of stolen and suspect-linked vehicles trigger an alarm, allowing the officers to immediately locate them.

The camera also is hooked into a computer that records the exact time and location where each plate was photographed, allowing the police to later map its previous locations around town.

“It’s not magic, but it’s pretty cool,” said Portland Police Southeast Precinct officer Terry Colbert, who has been sharing the Dodge Charger patrol car used in the test.

The test car only has been equipped with the system for a few weeks. But Colbert already has recovered seven stolen cars it identified.

Colbert believes the “data-mining” ability of the system has the potential to be even more important to the police, however.

“If a detective identifies a suspect and links him to a car, we can then go back and find out where the car has been,” Colbert said. “Or we can find out what cars were near a location where a crime was committed and where they went after that.”

System trips a trigger

Although the police still are testing the system, Jan Carson, the associate director of the Oregon chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, has some concerns about it.

She questions the legality of the police gathering and storing information about the travel patterns of people who are not suspected of committing any crimes — and wonders whether the information could be subpoenaed in civil cases.

“If the collection of the data was specifically tailored to the investigation of a crime, I don’t think we would have any problem with that,” Carson said. “But simply collecting information on where and when people are located, I think that’s a real invasion of privacy.”

Colbert said the police bureau is well aware that many Portlanders might consider the system some kind of computerized Big Brother. He counters that all of the pictures are being taken on public streets, where the expectation of privacy is far less than at home or work. And, Colbert notes, the cameras are angled down so that they only photograph the plates, not the occupants of the vehicles.

Other cities tout benefits

Although Colbert’s car is the only one in Oregon equipped with the system at this time, the technology is not new. Known as automatic license plate recognition, it is manufactured and sold by several companies. The system being tested by the police is manufactured by PIPS Technology, a division of the Federal Signal Corp., which is based in Tennessee.

Although numerous European law enforcement agencies have used the camera systems since the mid-1980s, Amercian police departments only began buying them approximately five years ago.

“Demand in this country is now doubling every year,” said company spokesman Brian Shockley.

Today, he said, about 300 domestic police departments have equipped patrol cars with the company’s system. The Long Beach (Calif.) Police Department claims that since 2005, its nine mobile camera systems have assisted in nearly 200 arrests and the recovery of more than 1,000 stolen vehicles. The Cincinnati Police Department credits the cameras with finding more than 8,000 “vehicles of interest” and assisting with about 300 arrests so far this year, including that of a homicide suspect and a suspected bank robber.

The system even can generate a profit for police by spotting vehicles with overdue parking tickets. Over the past year, Long Beach police identified and towed more than 700 vehicles with nearly $350,000 in outstanding citations.

According to Colbert, the Portland police still are fine-tuning and evaluating the camera and computer system, which can photograph and store hundreds of plate numbers during a single patrol shift.

One idea being discussed is equipping one car in each of the bureau’s five precincts with the system, potentially allowing thousands of license plates to be checked and recorded throughout the city every day.

Averaging about $25,000 per system, the equipment isn’t cheap. But even $125,000 is just a small fraction of the value of all cars stolen in Portland every year.

“There were 5,068 cars stolen in town last year at a value of $23.8 million,” Colbert said. “If we can quickly recover even a fraction of them, that will save car owners and insurance companies a lot of money.”

GPS data also linked

All such license plate camera systems work the same way. They use infrared rays to illuminate the reflectorized fronts of license plates, allowing the contrasting numbers and letters to be identified and photographed. The technology even works at night and in the rain.

Despite its sophistication, the camera is hardly noticeable on the test car. It is essentially a black cylinder, roughly six inches in diameter and four inches in length. Three cameras are mounted on the roof — two facing forward and one looking sideways on the passenger side. This setup allows them to scan the license plates of all vehicles in front of the left and right sides of the car every few seconds, along with cars in parking lots next to it.

A soft ping sounds when each picture is taken. A list of nearly 15,000 stolen plates maintained by the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles has been loaded into the computer. An alarm sounds if one of them is identified.

The cameras also are connected to a PIPS-furnished computer in the trunk of the car. It is loaded with the company’s software that records the time and Global Positioning System location of each photo.

Although Colbert believes this tracking function, potentially, is the system’s biggest benefit, it is what worries Carson the most.

“Who knows how this information will be used in the future?” Carson said. “What policies are going to be in place to protect people from being abused? Once your privacy’s been invaded, there’s little you can do about it.”

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