How AI-Powered ALPR Cameras Scan Millions of Cars to Flag Potential “Criminals”


You probably knew the authorities are using AI-powered cameras to scan for license plates linked to criminals but did you know they’re now using the same systems to guess who’s a criminal? They’re called ALPR cameras (Automatic License Plate Recognition) and, thanks to advancements in artificial intelligence, they can also analyze driver behavior.

In what seems like a scene from Minority Report, Forbes has the story of how one driver found himself arrested because the cameras thought he was driving like a drug trafficker.

Also read: Hacker Creates Clothes That Feed Fake Data To License Plate Reader Systems

From their report:

“In March of 2022, David Zayas was driving down the Hutchinson River Parkway in Scarsdale. His car, a gray Chevrolet, was entirely unremarkable, as was its speed. But to the Westchester County Police Department, the car was cause for concern and Zayas a possible criminal; its powerful new AI tool had identified the vehicle’s behavior as suspicious.

Searching through a database of 1.6 billion license plate records collected over the last two years from locations across New York State, the AI determined that Zayas’ car was on a journey typical of a drug trafficker. According to a Department of Justice prosecutor filing, it made nine trips from Massachusetts to different parts of New York between October 2020 and August 2021 following routes known to be used by narcotics pushers and for conspicuously short stays.”

Zayas was then pulled over, with authorities finding 112 grams of crack cocaine, $34,000 in cash and a semiautomatic pistol.

While he did plead guilty to the drug trafficking charge, his lawyer says that the way he was pulled over is “dragnet surveillance” and not a lawful way to identify criminals.

“This is the specter of modern surveillance that the Fourth Amendment must guard against. This is the systematic development and deployment of a vast surveillance network that invades society’s reasonable expectation of privacy,” the lawyer wrote in a motion.

He was referring to the ALPR system used by the Westchester police, which used 480 ALPR cameras – 436 stationary ones and 46 mobile ones – to scan over 16 million license plates per week.

ALPR cameras have been exploding in popularity, with some estimating the ALPR market to be worth more than $2 billion.

What are ALPR cameras?

Short for automatic number-plate recognition, ALPR is a software system that transforms regular surveillance cameras into advanced monitoring systems capable of recognizing certain details, like license plate numbers or car models, and flagging them according to various rules.

ALPR is sometimes also called ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) or just LPR (License Plate Recognition), although their capabilities far surpass plate recognition.

 “Black Mercedes-Benz SLS year 2014, license plate KMY256 from USA, state of New York, moving to the north at 91km/h speed,  “Black Mercedes-Benz SLS year 2014, license plate KMY256 from USA, state of New York, moving to the north at 91km/h speed”. This is the kind of information you can get from our Intelligent Transportation System (ITS).

This is what Duobango Telecom, a company that makes a so-called Intelligent Transportation System (ITS), says about their software. As you can see, ITS is another name for an ALPR system. 

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The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a great write-up on what ALPR cameras are, how they work and what the police are using them for.

In the case of Zayas, the ALPR surveillance system was built by a company called Rekor. Other ALPR companies include big names like Motorola but also newcomers like Flock, Jenoptik and Rekor.

Privacy experts are of course ringing the alarm about the state of surveillance, particularly as ALPR systems can be used for more than traffic monitoring. 

In one chilling case from earlier this month, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office was caught sharing ALPR data with law enforcement agencies in states that have passed laws banning abortion, including Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

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