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License-plate readers: recording your everyday movements and adding them to the public record

License-platesYou've known for years now about the ever-growing presence of license plate scanners that record and store the realtime movements of essentially all vehicles on public roadways where scanners are in use —either fixed-position scanners recording passersby on various roads, or roving scanners attached to police cars and other vehicles.

Perhaps you've even pondered the privacy implications of having all this information stored in a publicly accessible database, and wondered just how much personal information might be gleaned from these public records.

Cyrus Farivar from ArsTechnica wondered the same, and this week published the analysis of a public records request he'd filed with the city of Oakland, California, to see the results of the 33 automated license plate readers (LPRs) the police department operates throughout the city:

… we obtained the entire LPR dataset of the Oakland Police Department (OPD), including more than 4.6 million reads of over 1.1 million unique plates between December 23, 2010 and May 31, 2014. …

After analyzing this data with a custom-built visualization tool, Ars can definitively demonstrate the data's revelatory potential. Anyone in possession of enough data can often—but not always—make educated guesses about a target’s home or workplace, particularly when someone’s movements are consistent (as with a regular commute).

For instance, during a meeting with an Oakland city council member, Ars was able to accurately guess the block where the council member lives after less than a minute of research using his license plate data. ...