Are you being tracked when you drive? Many of us are

By Travlin on Sun, Feb 24, 2013 - 2:02am

Police forces and private companies are scanning auto license plates and building huge databases of location information--whether or not the owners of the cars have done anything wrong.

For more than two years, the police in San Leandro, Calif., photographed Mike Katz-Lacabe's Toyota Tercel almost weekly. They have shots of it cruising along Estudillo Avenue near the library, parked at his friend's house and near a coffee shop he likes. In one case, they snapped a photo of him and his two daughters getting out of a car in his driveway.

Read the article from the Wall Street Journal.
Watch the video from the Wall Street Journal.  (Loads slowly.)

In many locations police cars, or even private companies, are scanning all license plates and permanently retaining information in a database.  Over time this can show where and when you work and  play, where you shop, when you are home, who your friends are, and even keep pictures of your family members. 

Homeland Security has given away over $50 million dollars to fund this automatic tracking.  In 2010 more than a third of large police departments were estimated to use this technology, but much smaller towns do as well.  Police can tap their database without a court order.  It may be available to anyone via a public records request.  Some private firms collect and sell this data.

Read the comments from the Wall Street Journal.  (Loads slowly.)  Subscribers are generally highly educated, have important jobs, and make a lot of money.  They are “the establishment” and tend to support the status quo.  When many of them say “police state” then you are not a wacko for thinking the same.

Once again, where was the public debate on this issue?  Why did it become so pervasive before there was public notice?  How is this consistent with civil liberties?

What are your thoughts?


Previous post -- Please alert me of any previous posts on this topic and I will link to them.


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MarkM's picture
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Small towns


I had to make a trip to a small town in East Texas last Friday. I was dismayed but not surprised to see a unit identical to this one in use. Oh, population...1400. Where there were 3 assaults and 11 burglaries in 2011.

Hotrod's picture
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Police state

You bring up a very valid point.  Where was the discussion on whether this level of surveilance is acceptable to the public?  When was my opinion asked for on whether drones can fly over and monitor my activities?  Wake up people!!!   The guns you are clinging to will be practically worthless against such technology.

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Police Tracking-For No Good Reason.

They are simply applying the 'Boiling Frog' approach to us, such that they are acclimatizing us to this behavior. Little baby steps.

Except the poor schlub cops are just going along with it, under the pretence that it's going to help solve crime. Somehow.

And right now, that's the reason, it's being rolled out, I'm sure. I don't think there's a nefarious plot going on to bring about a tyranny upon us.

Why would there be? If there is, we're screwed from the get go. It will begin, in it's infancy with well-meaning people, the ones who know better and love to tell you how to live your life and punish you if you don't.

Oh… Kind of sounds like we're on that path already, doesn't it?

But that's just how it will happen. The mechanics are being put in place and like any technology, it can be used for good or evil.

And when someone gains power and feels it's slipping away for whatever reason they disagree with, this technology will be brought down upon the heads of the citizens to protect their position for the sake of the country.

Orwell would weep.




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"Anonymous" (my hero's) will save us. A mortal lock.


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Our redlight cameras in my

Our redlight cameras in my little neighborhood in suburban NYC take a picture everytime traffic comes to a stop, whether a law has been broken or not.  You can tell because the cameras are posted on top of a pole and have a very very bright flash. The use of scanners allows them to run the plates en masse and on and on. There was no discussion of this aspect of the cameras, only that they would use them to catch people running lights.  Not that they would be used to photograph law abiding citizens literally at every stop.

Creepy to me.

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Here in CT
MarkM wrote:


I had to make a trip to a small town in East Texas last Friday. I was dismayed but not surprised to see a unit identical to this one in use. Oh, population...1400. Where there were 3 assaults and 11 burglaries in 2011.

My town here in Connecticut has a police car cruising around with something very similar. I remember thinking to myself...that's a hell of a dash cam!

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there is no more privacy

Oh, where do I start regarding science fiction and high tech thriller authors talking about this?

  • How about Halting State, a novel by Charles Stross? It's is all about this issue
  • Future dectives use such information in short stories like "Kiss Me Twice", which was published in Asimov's Science Fiction, in 2011 (and nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novella): it contains use of cameras to solve a crime. And Charles Stross' "Rouge Farm" has a subplot all about pervasive nanotach-sized "cloud" monitoring.
  • The tech wiz's on NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, CSI, and CSI: NY use this sort of technology all the time.

Writers like my friend UK resident Stross (who was been been called into talk to the NSA about topics like cybersecurity and survellance) are aware of the cutting edge of what is about to happen. They've been warning those who would listen for years. Big Brother is very real, and it's only going to get worse. The genie is out of the bottle. Drive safely, behave yourself, and be careful what you say, buy and do.

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automatic license plate readers

Here's an article I remembered reading in Car and Driver that sheds some light on the technology.

As an aside, it's interesting that I use a 25 milliwatt infrared laser in my clinic and safety guidelines require that I wear protective glasses and also provide them to the patient being treated.  On the other hand, your friendly local police force that uses lasers for catching speeders uses a 75 milliwatt infrared laser and beams at directly at you without you having any of the benefit of any eye protection.  According to their literature, it's supposed to be safe.  Baloney!  I have a radar/laser detector in my car and the police in my town had beamed it at my car for as long as 8 seconds (I counted). They're supposed to beam it briefly at the front license plate area but my detector is just above eye level and would go off indicating that the beam was probably hitting my eyes as well (but since it's infrared you can't tell).  After this incident, I noticed that I experienced some eye irritation and fuzziness in vision.  I wrote a letter to my local police chief (a good guy, BTW) explaining that if this behavior continued, some liability issues would definitely be raised.  From what I have seen, they have stopped using the unit and are again using the old fashioned radar.  Just some food for thought, FWIW.

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Golden Gate Bridge going to camera-based toll collection

San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge is preparing to do away with cash payment for it's $6 toll. Instead, cars will be electronically tracked as they pass over the bridge and subsequently billed.

Drivers have the option of registering for FasTrak (which requires having a device in the car); or registering with the state to "pay-by-plate", where the driver registers in a program to have a camera record the car's passage and then bill his account.

Drivers who are not registered in either the FasTrak or pay-by-plate program will be tracked by the camera and subsequently sent a bill in the mail (presumably, based on their license #):

Life for those drivers who have Fastrak will remain unchanged when the change occurs; they will continue to pay electronically a discounted $5 to cross the span. But the thousands of people who use cash will have to find a new way to pay.

Cameras at the toll plaza will be used for a "pay-by-plate" system that will assess tolls based on license plate numbers to the registered owner of the vehicle on file with the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Those users will pay $6 per crossing.

The cameras at the toll plaza will record images of license plates.

Then electronically, the toll can then be assessed to a license plate account opened online. Paying by credit card online is likely the easiest option, bridge officials said.

Those who do not do anything will be mailed a bill for the toll with a payment due in 21 days.

Awareness of this switchover is not that high among those living in the Bay Area. The program was approved by a subcommitte of the bridge district, so it was not subjected to the scrutiny of a public vote.  When it goes into effect, many drivers will not realize that they're being tracked until the toll invoices start showing up in the mail.

This story also provides an example of Gregor's recent observation about the growing trend to replace workers with automation, despite the high US unemployment rate. All of the existing human toll collectors on the bridge will be replaced by this new sensor-based system:

Golden Gate Bridge officials are eliminating 32 toll-taker positions, among other steps, to help bail the district out of a $66 million budget shortfall over the next five years. When the plan was put into place, there were 28 active toll-takers. Half of those have since retired or have found others jobs within the district, while 14 face layoffs.

While the all-electronic tolls are expected to speed times though the toll plaza, the bridge will lose the human element, bridge officials acknowledged.

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Here's how we resist.

Here's how we resist.  Know your rights and their powers.

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Panopticon--the psychology of being watched

While reading a science fiction novel, The Dark River by John Twelve Hawks, I was introduced to the idea of the panopticon prison.

The key idea here is that the prison is build so that jailers can observe inmates at all times, but that inmates can never be sure when they are being observed.  This profoundly affects their psychology and forces "normalization" of behavior.  We find ourselves trying to "be good" all of the time, never sure when we a "bad act" might be observed and punished.

From Wikipedia:  "The Panopticon is a type of institutional building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late eighteenth century. The concept of the design is to allow a watchman to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether or not they are being watched.

"The design consists of a circular structure with an "inspection house" at its centre, from which the managers or staff of the institution are able to watch the inmates, who are stationed around the perimeter.  Bentham himself described the Panopticon as "a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example."

The term "Panopticon" is used now as a metaphor for a secret surveillance system.

It is my experience that the psychological impact of this type of secret observational system is profound.  A few nights ago I was sitting at a stop light on a deserted road at 3:00 am on my way home from work.  I sat and waited and waited and waited as the light remained red for a very long time.  I did not run the red light, even though there was no one around, perfect visibility and no reason to not go except for the POSSIBILITY that I might be observed to be breaking the law.  A hidden police car?  A red light camera?  The "observers" may not have even been in their office that night--perhaps they were all home with the flu?   Thus it was NOT the surveillance itself that restrained my behavior, but my belief that I MIGHT be surveilled and my own instinctive discomfort with being caught violating the law.  The restraint system was actually within my own mind and psychology.

When I hear of "leaked" information about a new secret surveillance system, I wonder if the leak is itself a part of the process by which the surveillance process exerts it control. 

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Thank you for this, and for a fact if you do not want governmental or policemen to search or enter your car or home you may refuse, and they cannot come in. Not once have a policeman entered my home upon request and my refusal. In one instance I shut the front door. 

The last two times I have been pulled over I was NOT given a citation. The last time I went through a yellow, and noticed in my rear view that a cop about quarter of a mile back (?) was coming on so I pulled over and waited. When the police came to my door they asked me why I pulled over. I responded that I blew a yellow and seen them so I waited. The officers response was" this was a first " and let me go with a " have a nice day ". The time before that I turned right at a light 5 minutes before I could. Again, I pulled over after seeing them, and they let me go as I no Sir, yes Sir him. So, it does pay to be smart/nice too.

Again, Thank you


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Denny Johnson
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Thanks THC, Really appreciate

Thanks THC,

Really appreciate the level headed 'insider' perspective of all your posts.

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