The state of supervision is no longer limited to the state.

For years, police services have been monitoring people's cars with the help of cameras that record the license plate number of each passing vehicle. Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit digital data protection organization, described technology as "a form of mass surveillance."

Today, a new generation of technology companies allows individuals to use devices, called automatic license plate readers, or LPRs, without the strict supervision that governs this type of data collection. by the forces of the order.

Providing civilians with ALPR enables a wide range of new applications, including customer service and school safety. But it also raises countless new legal and ethical issues, few of which have been tried in court, the experts warned.

An increase of 3000%

Automatic License Plate Readers, or LPRs, have long been addressing users of law enforcement at the local, regional and federal levels. The systems can be mounted on utility poles, street lights, overpasses, police cars, even traffic cones and speed signs that indicate the speed at which drivers drive. Once the plate of a vehicle is photographed and the date, time and place are recorded, an algorithm compares it to a car database searched by the police.

LPRs can capture about 2,000 plates per minute, on vehicles traveling up to 200 km / hour, projecting an incredibly wide net. The police can store and access these data later, allowing investigators to better understand the behavior and location of a suspect.

Unlike traditional LPR systems, which consist of professional-grade equipment that is beyond the reach of most civilians – and even some smaller police departments – the new configurations are based on standard security cameras.

At least one company, OpenALPR, offers free software on Github. Anyone who downloads it can turn a single Internet-connected camera into an automatic license plate reader that can monitor traffic on a four-lane highway with 99% accuracy. (Customers pay between $ 49 and $ 995 a month for optional cloud scanning and storage.)

OpenALPR software was only used in 300 cameras two years ago, according to the company. Today, it is used in 9,200 cameras in 70 countries, an increase of 2,960%. Half of these clients are police officers, says Matt Hill, founder of OpenALPR, the rest being simple citizens.

Private companies use these configurations in a way that is distinctly different from that of the police, although the general idea is the same.

The competitor OpenALPR PlateSmart Technologies, another company that markets ALPR systems to the general public, advertises various security and business intelligence practices, including analytics packages that allow retailers to analyze responses. from customers to promotional offers and track demographics of people driving in their vehicles parking spaces.

Schools can also use the systems to control access to their campuses, while hospitals can track staff, visitors and patients, says PlateSmart to potential customers. Casinos can connect to law enforcement databases and create customized lists to alert the police when criminals, banned persons or "gaming addicts" have visited the site, the site adds. .

Joseph Giacalone, a professor of criminal justice at City University in New York, explains that it was only a matter of time before deploying LPRAs for civilian use. "Any new technology comes with the promise of improving our lives and simplifying our tasks," said the former New York Police Commander. "But they also bring a warning: the risk of abuse: people who track down exes, make targets more accessible to criminals and monitor your spouse."

Ethical issues

Unlike the police and other users of the Justice and Law Enforcement Act, citizens are not subject to constitutional protections prohibiting unlawful searches and seizures, or racial profiling, for example. Civilian users also need not worry about the ministerial review boards or internal affairs units that monitor them.

At least 16 states have laws regarding the use of LPRAs and data retention, which civilians are required to respect. However, states that have rules do not do a very good job of advertising. "It's possible that few users will be aware of this when testing the software," says Dave Maass of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

In addition, unlike law enforcement agencies, which are generally subject to the laws on public information, citizens have no way of knowing exactly how private companies use the data. RAPI that they collect. The amount of information that they can collect is unprecedented and they can do everything in secret.

The LPR industry is not itself regulated (there is currently no prohibition for ALPR companies to market their data), so the risk of misuse is high, said Kabrina Chang, professor of law and practice. Ethics at the Questrom School of Business at Boston University.

"The money to be gained from compiling and selling data will affect decision-making," Chang adds. "OpenALPR, or any company using the data collected by ALPR, could have internal policies and rules, as well as corporate governance processes in place, but we have seen companies repeatedly violate their own policies."

OpenALPR insists that they do not sell or share their customers' data with external entities.

More you know

To get an idea of ​​the issues that the private use of LPR can raise, consider the type of information collected by a typical security camera.

OpenALPR, for example, can provide users with the make, model and color of vehicles. In response to privacy concerns, some police services have voluntarily restricted the camera settings of their LPR systems to only photograph the back of each vehicle, in order to capture the license plate. 39 but not a wider shot of the car or its occupants.

It would be much more difficult to prosecute a private company for misusing LPR data than against a government agency, Chang said. Each state has its own standards and definitions for privacy invasions. Most will not consider cases that do not involve intrusion. This would not be particularly helpful for someone who, for example, thought that his employer had mistakenly used the LPR information they had collected about him. (LPR systems can also be hacked or exposed online.)

OpenALPR's Hill presented itself as "a big advocate for privacy protection," claiming that LPR systems can help businesses and individuals. "It's not just surveillance," he says. "You can simply add it to a product and you suddenly get a simpler experience."

EFF Maass claims that only one person using a system such as OpenALPR on their own home cameras is probably not a big threat to the privacy of the public. "If these people connect their network or share it directly with law enforcement, it creates a large surveillance network," he adds.

In fact, it's exactly what Hill intends to do:

"You talk to [homeowners associations] and you talk to private companies and one of the things that they find really valuable is to allow the police to access their data to proactively capture people, "he said. he declares.