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Security & privacy

Road signs are spying on drivers

When it comes to technology on the roads, often times what we see is nothing short of amazing. Just think of the first time you saw a touch-screen display in a vehicle, or when you learned that adaptive cruise control, lane assist or self-parking cars were a thing.

Pretty cool, right? Then there are the self-driving cars, which are in a bit of hot water these days but still represent a giant leap in automotive tech.

You’ve probably heard of digital license plates, too, right? We’ve told you about the drawbacks about such superfluous smart gadgets including security and privacy implications.

Digital license plates may be a thing but did you know that on the flip-side, digital road signs can be used for surveillance too?

Spying road signs

Have you driven past one of those digital road signs with a readout of how fast you’re going? Well, they’re not there simply to stop you from speeding, they may be capturing your license plate number too.

According to a recently disclosed US federal contracting document titled “Radar Speed Display Trailers,” the Drug Enforcement Administration is expected to expand the scope of its nationwide surveillance network with the procurement of multiple trailer-mounted speed displays “to be retrofitted as mobile LPR (License Plate Reader) platforms.”

The contractor for these systems is U2 Systems Inc., a private company from Mesa, Arizona. Two small machine shops in California and Virginia were also tapped to conceal the readers within the road signs.

The DEA is expecting to take deliveries of these new license plate-reading speed signs by Oct. 15.

License plate readers = mass surveillance?

This DEA program is nothing new. The National License Plate Reader Program was launched in 2008 to “enhance the ability of law enforcement agencies to interdict drug traffickers, money launderers or other criminal activities on high drug and money trafficking corridors and other public roadways throughout the U.S.” This program is primarily meant to monitor the southwest border region, and the country’s northeast and southeast corridors.

However, although this can be an effective crime-fighting tool to some government agencies, privacy advocates are worried about its large-scale ramifications.

See, these modern digital license plate readers are astonishingly fast. They can capture around 2,000 plates a minute — imagine that! This speed can be invaluable to the police who are trying to pursue a criminal, for sure. On the flip-side, privacy advocates are saying that this data can then be stored by the authorities and used later for data mining purposes.

Data collection is not the issue here

Privacy advocates and researchers are saying that the data collection of the American general public is not the issue. It’s what the authorities do eventually with that kind of information that’s troubling. As more information is collected, advocates are arguing that it’s wrong and un-American for the U.S. government to arbitrarily collect and hold on to such a broad amount of data, anyway.

Technology, too, is making it easier for government agencies to collect data in the most efficient way possible. Some of these license plate readers can even take “contextual photos” which can take images of a passing vehicle’s driver and passengers. Combined with emerging tech like facial recognition and you will realize how even these digital road signs can usher in our Big Brother type future.

Law enforcement says it’s OK

On the other hand, law enforcement agencies are saying that none of this data is being used to spy on regular Americans. One of their arguments is that no one knows if someone’s going to commit a crime so the data should be kept forever. They just never know when they’re going to need that data.

For the most part, I don’t think everyday Americans would want to stop law enforcement agencies from doing their jobs effectively anyway. But as with everything else, there needs to be a certain balance between privacy and mass surveillance. There’s always the potential for abuse, so everyone needs to think long and hard about the information we are all willing to give up.

Are digital license plate readers illegal?

Are these digital license plate readers actually illegal? Listen to the free podcast below and see why government agencies may be illegally using a license plate recognition database to track people.

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