Today in ubiquitous surveillance news:

Ars acquires 4.6M license plate scans from the cops

In response to a public records request, we obtained the entire LPR dataset of the Oakland Police Department (OPD), including more than 4.6 million reads of over 1.1 million unique plates between December 23, 2010 and May 31, 2014. The dataset is likely the largest ever publicly released in the United States -- perhaps in the world.

After analyzing this data with a custom-built visualization tool, Ars can definitively demonstrate the data's revelatory potential. Anyone in possession of enough data can often -- but not always -- make educated guesses about a target's home or workplace, particularly when someone's movements are consistent (as with a regular commute).

For instance, during a meeting with an Oakland city council member, Ars was able to accurately guess the block where the council member lives after less than a minute of research using his license plate data. Similarly, while "working" at an Oakland bar mere blocks from Oakland police headquarters, we ran a plate from a car parked in the bar's driveway through our tool. The plate had been read 48 times over two years in two small clusters: one near the bar and a much larger cluster 24 blocks north in a residential area -- likely the driver's home.

All Muni Buses Now Have Transit Lane Enforcement Cameras

Muni has installed front-facing cameras on every Muni bus to ticket drivers who double-park in transit-only lanes.

Muni is the first major American transit agency to have enforcement cameras on every bus.

Muni didn't publicize the milestone, but we checked up on the effort with SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose, who said it was completed last fall (a few months off the target date of spring 2014). Equipping the whole fleet marks a major milestone in the effort to make Muni service more effective, and it nicely complements the city's growing number of red-painted transit lanes.

So be warned, drivers: If a Muni bus weaves around your parked car in a transit lane, you will get a ticket in the mail. The base fine is $110.

Unfortunately, state law prohibits the cameras from being used to cite moving violations, so drivers cruising down a Muni lane can still only be penalized by the SFPD.

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5 Responses:

  1. nooj says:

    ex-Officer Dingleberry: "I don't see it as a big problem, because there's so many other ways to track somebody.”

    And this guy is part of the Citizens' Police Review Board?

    "A license plate reader merely accomplishes, more efficiently, the same task that a police officer may accomplish by reading a license plate and manually entering the number into a database. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that a court would not hold that the use of a license plate reader would constitute a search."

    Unfortunately, this is probably correct. It's the same argument that says an officer can use binoculars to improve his ability to do something he can already do without them: see clearly. So using the automated device to record license plates is as permissible as an officer writing down every plate he sees.

    As to the legality of post facto query of a database of license plates collected without any specific law enforcement activity in mind, the courts are undecided. I can only expect that they will continue to allow this to happen, and cement it into case law. And so there goes part of the case against Upstream.

    "unless there is a reason not to release information—if it is part of an ongoing active criminal investigation, for example"

    It's not clear how or when police will choose to consider whether certain data is or is not part of an ongoing investigation.

    • Other Jamie says:

      The law is capable of distinguishing things people can do from things machines can do, just faster and tirelessly. cf. rules about machine guns, robo-callers, etc.

      Unfortunately, I'm not optimistic either, because police work seems to get close to a universal free pass on intrusive bullshit.

      I probably need to buy a car soon, and it will be purchased by a corporation. That isn't much help, but about all one can get.

      Regarding the MUNI cameras, I wonder if those went live before that shitty deal with the Google buses was made. If so, a FOIA request on what instructions, if any, were given to people reviewing the photos wrt when to use 'discretion' would be interesting.

      • nooj says:

        Probably not that interesting. I imagine the shitty deal was made because of the MUNI cameras.

  2. mattyj says:

    I'm putting a provision in my will that requires playing the video of me getting run over by a MUNI bus at my funeral.

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