By on March 27, 2015

OaklandPoliceCar

Via a public records request, the Oakland Police Department has turned over 4.6 million reads of 1.1 million unique plates recorded between 2010 and 2014.

Ars Technica made the request, resulting in the aforementioned license-plate reader dataset made between December 23, 2010 and May 31, 2014. The publication then hired a data visualization specialist to organize the dataset for its investigation into the practice.

With the permission of those contacted, the publication was able to track the movements of each individual based on their license plate, information that provides an insight into a given person’s life, according to University of California, Berkeley law professor Catherine Crump:

Where someone goes can reveal a great deal about how he chooses to live his life. Do they park regularly outside the Lighthouse Mosque during times of worship? They’re probably Muslim. Can a car be found outside Beer Revolution a great number of times? May be a craft beer enthusiast—although possibly with a drinking problem.

Crump adds that, as LPR technology comes down in price and becomes ubiquitous on the backs of police cars and in traffic lights, citizens should support restrictions on the data collected, from how long it’s stored and who can access it, to why it should be accessed in the first place.

Ars Technica also obtained data on OPD vehicles, discovering that a single unit — a 2007 Ford P71 — was scanned 879 times between January 15, 2012 and May 31, 2014 while it travelled through Downtown Oakland and North Oakland; nearly all of the 100 OPD in the dataset were also scanned several hundred times over.

As for how the publication was able to have this data in the first place, neither the OPD or the Oakland City Council has set a formal data retention limit; the police department deletes information as needed for new data, however. All OPD officers also have access to the LPR information at any time, and need not give a reason for accessing the data when searching for a given plate, though policy says such searches require “a legitimate law enforcement purpose, such as following up on a criminal investigation.”

Finally, OPD police captain Anthony Toribio explains that the data is publically available to anyone who asks, citing transparency as the reason:

I think it’s important for a law enforcement organization to be transparent, and it goes to being credible and establishing legitimacy in the community.

The OPD dataset is the second-largest LPR dataset to be released via request, the largest being one from a request by the American Civil Liberties Union to the Seattle Police Department in 2010. The request resulted in a dataset of over 7.3 million scans.

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23 Comments on “Oakland PD Turns Over 4.6M License Plate Dataset Via Public Records Request...”


  • avatar
    Vulpine

    I’m more concerned that the data released is now “in the wild” where it could be misused by almost anyone.

    Yes, I agree that they proved how people’s lifestyles can be determined; but is that really a bad thing when there is no concern? Such analysis when there IS a concern could far more readily help locate a criminal after a crime is committed or detect threats to individuals, groups or locations prior to an actual incident. Naturally such license plate tracking cannot be the sole basis for such concerns, but it can be used in conjunction with other detective work to prove their movements and even verify timing of events. More, it can help reduce individual crimes like stalking, kidnapping and rape by detecting patterns of presence in atypical areas, especially in the case where the victim has asked the police for protection.

    But as we all should know, any technology that can be used for good can also be used for ill. Imagine a scenario right here where someone suggested Ars Technica run this test just so they could access the data and stalk a target. Did Ars Technica really do good here, or did they enable a criminal through good intentions?

    • 0 avatar
      Detroit-Iron

      If you haven’t done anything wrong, and your abusive ex-boyfriend isn’t a cop (or friends with one), then you have nothing to worry about.

      • 0 avatar
        thelaine

        Agreed. As long as you don’t say or do anything or associate with anyone that someone in the government doesn’t like, you have nothing to worry about.

      • 0 avatar
        psarhjinian

        “If you haven’t done anything wrong, and your abusive ex-boyfriend isn’t a cop”

        Not at all true. Ars Technica was able to procure this information and analyze it through perfectly legal channels; anyone else could do the same, up to and including normal people.

        You would need the requisite skills and training to do something with this data, but it’s not out of the reach of a couple of smart developers.

        This data doesn’t need to be collected on this kind of scale, and it absolutely does not need to be retained at all.

        • 0 avatar
          Pch101

          A lot of people don’t seem to understand the concept of an algorithm. It doesn’t have to start with looking for an individual person, but with detecting patterns of behavior that lead them to individuals who end up being added to their monitoring lists because of their behavior.

          This is similar to monitoring programs such as Echelon that flag individuals, many of whom may have been unknown to authorities, based upon keywords and communications patterns.

        • 0 avatar
          golden2husky

          You got that right. There is no real legitimate reason to keep this data and to hand it out in the name of transparency is a joke. Yet this post has what, 19 comments while Indiana’s law has posts into the hundreds. People just don’t care about the intrusion into individual privacy, and its erosion on so many levels.

          • 0 avatar
            thelaine

            “People just don’t care about the intrusion into individual privacy, and its erosion on so many levels.”

            That is exactly the way I feel about the loss of individual freedom and personal responsibility that we have experienced as government grows and grows.

            Law enforcement is only one manifestation.

            Most people don’t care as long as they get goodies, but but there is a price.

      • 0 avatar
        ect

        Every dictator in history has used this line to justify all manner of oppressive laws and practices. In a free country, I have the right to go about my business without being tracked by the authorities. Period.

        Having said that, I’d be the first to acknowledge that the war on privacy was lost in the early ’90s. But there’s a huge difference between business looking at my patterns and practices to figure out what they should be trying to sell me and the police tracking my movements “just in case”.

      • 0 avatar
        thelaine

        You can’t do nothing wrong.

        http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2015/03/29/crime-law-criminal-unfair-column/70630978/

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    I saw this on Ars a couple days ago. Ars was trying to prove a point: that there’s downsides to obtaining this data, and serious downsides to it’s retention beyond a few hours/days.

    What Ars did, anyone could do. And frankly, anyone probably is doing this.

    One of the issues with big data isn’t that it’s collected, it’s that, with storage and processing being so cheap, you can retain data for months/years and crunch it effortlessly. A few years back you’d have to be Google to do this; now you can just buy processor time on Azure/AWS/GCE and do it yourself.

    We can’t really do squat about corporations hoarding data, but government, at least, is notionally accountable, and local governments are easiest to persuade. The problem is the whole “soft on crime/terror/drugs” mindset that makes it very hard to stop.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      “but government, at least, is notionally accountable”

      Since when?

      • 0 avatar
        psarhjinian

        You vote, don’t you?

        In addition, this is local government: you can quite easily get a hold of your councillor or suchlike and bend his/her ear. You can also organize people to do the same. Unlike Federal or State/Provincial politics, local people are pretty responsive.

        The issue tends to be when no one engages. Local officials just keep doing what they’re doing, or someone who isn’t as apathetic sets the agenda for you.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          Maybe its poor civics on my part but I believe all of the important elections are completely rigged in one manner or another and I have seldom seen a local election which mattered (which is a consequence of one party rule no matter the side of the left/right false paradigm). Your vote for the illusion of your voice having a “say”, you really don’t have a player in the game as these things seem to be decided in advance.

          • 0 avatar
            DenverMike

            “Your vote for the illusion of your voice having a “say”…”

            I know but it’s fun to pretend though. Even if they weren’t rigged, one vote means about absolute zero. But at least you had your “say”. It’s like playing Lotto. At least you took your shot at the Jackpot. It comes down to not paying attention in Basic Math.

          • 0 avatar
            psarhjinian

            I don’t find it so; I’ve generally found my local councillors to be quite receptive.

            I’ve even managed to get my federal MP to look into a case of a family member who was detained in Pakistan.

            Frankly, I think many people get the government they deserve: if you squeeze, starve, disengage and distrust it, you can expect only the worst to be actively involved in it.

        • 0 avatar
          SunnyvaleCA

          “You vote, don’t you?”

          So, you’re saying that anything is OK in society as long as 51% of the people voted for it and only 49% against. This is the “Tyranny of the Majority” that the constitution is trying to stop.

    • 0 avatar
      Dan

      “We can’t really do squat about corporations hoarding data, but government, at least, is notionally accountable …”

      I just don’t understand the fear of this. The only thing a business cares about is selling you something. The spying that they do amounts to market research. They can’t put you in jail. They can’t take your stuff. All they can do is advertise better and all you have to do is not buy it.

      Government is the busybody with the gun.

      • 0 avatar
        Dirk Stigler

        Don’t you watch TV? Corporations all have secret A-Teams to go out and do evil stuff for no particular reason. Government is the good guy who saves the day with all that surveillance data that they never use for anything but catching bad guys.

        • 0 avatar
          Dan

          “Think about all the data that’s available about you. Think about what could happen to you if that data leaks.”

          I don’t see what the Russian mafia can do with it that Google can’t. My day to day travel, medical, shopping history doesn’t let them steal my stuff or put me in jail either.

          My bank account and social security numbers are wide open to the former but that cat has been out of the bag for years.

          “Not to mention that employers will use the technology to spy on…er, monitor their employees.”

          Then pick up and work for somebody else who doesn’t do that to you. That’s real accountability.

          “Banks and insurance companies can also be expected to be among those that will use this information against their customers. Think twice before you park your car at a place that they might find to be undesirable.”

          So the worst we’ve come up with is potentially more accurate risk assessment in insurance premiums.

      • 0 avatar
        psarhjinian

        “The only thing a business cares about is selling you something”

        Think about all the data that’s available about you. Think about what could happen to you if that data leaks.

        Even if a corporation isn’t actively malicious (and some have indeed walked that line**, if not crossed it, when their profits are threatened) just aggregating this data presents a big, fat target for criminals. Many corporations just suck when it comes to data security, and I would not like my profile being available to the Russian Mafia wholesale, thanks.

        ** including our perennial favourite, General Motors. Remember when they tried to entrap Ralph Nader with hookers?

        • 0 avatar
          Pch101

          Not to mention that employers will use the technology to spy on…er, monitor their employees.

          Banks and insurance companies can also be expected to be among those that will use this information against their customers. Think twice before you park your car at a place that they might find to be undesirable.

          • 0 avatar
            psarhjinian

            “Not to mention that employers will use the technology to spy on…er, monitor their employees.”

            Good point. Routine SocMed presence-monitoring and reputation-repair is not at all uncommon in larger companies. Tying in location databases just make it all that bit easier for someone with an axe to grind.

            “Banks and insurance companies can also be expected to be among those that will use this information against their customers”

            That’s quite true, too.

            People tend to think in terms of government being bad purely because of guns, but the economic and reputational misery a company can bestow upon you can be quite harmful and much harder to limit.


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