License plate reader offers nationwide alerts, analytics

License plate reader offers nationwide alerts, analytics

The New York Police Department plans to subscribe to an automated license plate reader database that will enable the department to receive alerts when a stolen vehicle is identified even if it is well outside the jurisdiction, Ars Technica reported.

The NYPD will acquire the database, said to contain 2.2 billion records, under a three-year, $442,500 deal with Vigilant Systems Inc.,  according to the website.  The city must first approve the deal, according to a report in the NY Daily News.

Using the database, police could “virtually stake out a location,” according to the newspaper.

The database is fed by Vigilant license place scanners operating in cities across the country. The system can provide detectives information on where and in what direction a stolen car might be traveling that has been scanned by the system.

Vigilant database software can also help investigators work up an “associate analysis” using data from license plates scanned in “close proximity to the known suspect,” according to a Vigilant report obtained by the NY Daily News.

The company has amassed the data via a subsidiary, the Digital Recognition Network (DRN), which sells $15,000 “camera kits” to vehicle repossession companies nationwide, Ars Technica reported.

The companies use the photographs to stock license plate databases used to identify cars that were stolen or should be repossessed. DRN sells some of its data to car financing lenders insurance companies.

The uses for license plate readers extends well beyond local police jurisdictions. At the federal level, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced last year it was looking for a smartphone-accessible database of license plate information ICE agents could use in the field to identify vehicles and owners.

In a solicitation for a national license plate recognition database, ICE said the service should be able to track license plate numbers recorded by cameras or in access control systems.

ICE said the system should allow agents to upload photos of license plates and receive alerts about positive matches as well as allow users to create a query for any target vehicle by entering the license plate number, state of registration and reason code.

Meanwhile, software developers have remained busy developing new tools for license plate reading and analytics.

One firm, Image Sensing Systems Inc. now sells Recognition as a Service (RaaS). The company’s CitySync  solution lets governments and businesses use the CitySync license plate recognition engine with any camera.

Its standard delivery is via the cloud, but can also be installed as an on-premises solution. Customers can pay either by the plate, by the lane or by a yearly subscription. When a license plate is captured, it is sent to the CitySync recognition engine, which puts it through six different algorithms for recognition. 

“Once the [optical character recognition] is run, that information is sent into the “back office” where you can apply analytics,” said Lisa Chubb, marketing communication manager at Image Sensing Systems Inc.  

Law enforcement, for example, could perform convoy analysis to track a lead car and a trailing car to see how far apart they are.  What’s more, the locations of the cars can then be displayed in Google Maps.

Interest in the license plate reading technology has not gone unnoticed by the privacy watchdogs. Catherine Crump, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, told Ars Technica that Vigilant was assembling, “a vast database tracking Americans’ movements, and it’s no surprise that one of the most prolific users of surveillance, the NYPD, would seek to access it."

"But this data raises profound privacy issues, for the first time enabling the mass tracking of Americans, and we haven’t even begun to have a meaningful conversation about what the appropriate uses are for this type of data," Crump said.

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