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Cameras scan license plates for stolen cars

Baltimore Sun | April 3, 2006
By Melissa Harris

As her marked car crawled through the parking lot, Detective Kelly Tibbs' new laptop beeped like a supermarket scanner. Two cameras, positioned like crab eyes on the cruiser's roof, snapped digital pictures of hundreds of license plates, and with each beep, the laptop checked the images against an FBI list of stolen cars.

Such cameras - called Mobile Plate Hunters - are replacing the laborious eyeball-and-keystroke method of checking for stolen cars, letting busy officers rely instead on an automated scan that takes less than a second.

Already in widespread use in London and Italy, automatic number plate recognition is a technology on the verge of exploding in the Baltimore-Washington area, fueled in places by funds from the federal Department of Homeland Security.

Howard and Anne Arundel counties deploy one each. Prince George's County and the District of Columbia have ordered more than a dozen of the cameras, which have been in use in Prince George's since August and the district since January.

Baltimore police are soliciting bids for a system that would work with the city's existing network of street surveillance cameras. And as early as this summer's vacation rush, Maryland Transportation Authority Police hope to add the cameras to the Bay Bridge as part of a pilot project with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Stationary cameras, such as those envisioned for Baltimore and the Bay Bridge, could alert nearby officers if an offending vehicle - one bearing a license plate registered to a wanted criminal, suspected terrorist or car thief - goes past.

"The uses are as limitless as your imagination," said Lt. John McKissick, director of Howard County's emergency preparedness division. "We're just in the infancy of this project, but already it saves us money and manpower."

Although proponents say the technology eventually will deny all but the most clever of criminals access to roads, privacy advocates warn that the plate hunters mark another step toward a society in which police can track a person's every move.

"Normally, your license plate number only becomes relevant when you're involved in an accident, pulled over by police or when your car is stolen," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "This technology changes that. ... It's a new form of surveillance."

The technology, which Tibbs demonstrated in the parking lot of Howard County police headquarters, was developed in Italy and used by the Italian postal service. Postcards would zip along a conveyer belt, the cameras would read them, and the computer would sort them.

"The engineers in Italy realized that if they could read Bulgarian postcards handwritten with pencil at high speeds, license plates would be a piece of cake," said Mark Windover, president of Remington-Elsag, a partnership between the U.S. gun manufacturer and the Italian postal-technology company, which sold a plate hunter to Howard County for $26,0000.

The plate hunters use infrared light to "read" as many as 900 license plates per minute zooming by at speeds of up to 120 miles per hour in the rain or dark, McKissick said.

Infrared light illuminates the plate, the camera snaps a picture and the computer converts it into digital characters - ABC 123, for example - using optical character recognition. Strapping two cameras to a roof allows the system to go through a mall parking lot, checking plates on both sides of the police car.

Each night, local police departments download FBI data to in-car laptops. When a scanned license plate matches one in the FBI database, the computer triggers an alarm, and the screen blinks red "alert" signs. Before officers can make an arrest, they must check the accuracy of the alert because the database lags a day behind, and the system does not distinguish among states.

"In one block in Washington, I recovered six sets of stolen tags and a stolen motorcycle using the reader," said state police Detective Sgt. George Jacobs, assistant commander of the Washington-area vehicle enforcement unit. "It's just amazing that there are areas out there like that. It's a great tool because manually, it would have taken me several hours to type in the tags."

Though the primary purpose of the technology is to recover stolen vehicles, Howard County and other jurisdictions plan to eventually use the cameras for surveillance.

McKissick said he envisions placing cameras around potential terrorist targets and linking them to neighboring counties' systems. For instance, if the same license plate passes emergency communications towers in Howard, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, the system could alert police in all three areas.

The technology also could be used to enforce laws or court orders that keep sexual predators away from schools or domestic abusers away from spouses.

Already, when Tibbs learns of an Amber Alert, she can enter the tag number manually into her laptop and search for the car. The system also is linked to the FBI's "violent gangs and terrorism organization file," though Howard County is not yet using it because the plate hunter is still new to the department, McKissick said.

"We want to be able to look at offenders with another set of eyes," said Chief Gary W. McLhinney of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, which is working to secure a pilot program for the technology at the Bay Bridge.

McKissick and other officers dismiss concerns that the cameras invade drivers' privacy. McKissick said the machine is "strictly a numbers game," enabling officers to do more of what they already do.

Jacobs said the system does not discriminate and that the computer does not list a tag owner's information unless it sounds an alert on the car. Without the computer, officers choose which license plates they check, lacking the time to manually enter every one they see.

"There can be no discrimination," Jacobs said, "because the machine picks and runs every tag it sees."

 

 

 

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