For years, license plate readers have been used by police to collect information on millions of people, whether it’s for criminal investigations, racial profiling or illegal blackmailing. Now Rekor Systems wants to put that technology in your neighbors’ hands.
On Thursday, the company launched Watchman, automatic license plate reader technology it says can be installed on any home security camera. Rekor’s software, known as OpenALPR, then can analyze streaming video and find license plates captured in a recording. The product has been publicly available since 2015, but this is the first time Rekor is specifically marketing to individual homeowners rather than businesses.
To entice suburban residents, it’s offering a steep price drop — from the $50 a month it charges businesses and law enforcement agencies to $5 a month, less than the price of a newspaper subscription.
Watchman uses a whitelist/blacklist system, allowing customers to log plate numbers for cars that are approved to be near their homes or to warn them when a vehicle has been flagged as a potential threat is near.
Rekor Systems, which already works with police departments across the country, says the home version will work just as well as professional versions of the technology.
“It is as effective and accurate as our law enforcement version,” Rekor CEO Robert Berman said. “This is the same product we use with our customers.”
But with Rekor’s product launch, privacy advocates now worry that these automatic license plate readers, otherwise known as ALPRs, could be installed in front of every home, creating a network for police to bolster their own surveillance technology, which often has to go through City Hall for approval.
“They essentially get a vast network of ALPRs that they get to use for whatever purpose they want — and in return, citizens get no say in what tech their police use because technically it comes down to the consumer’s choice to install it and grant access,” said Matthew Guariglia, an Electronic Frontier Foundation policy analyst.
It’s akin to the situation that’s developed with Ring video doorbells. That company, owned by Amazon, has been working with hundreds of police departments around the US to promote the adoption of the cameras, which in turn can be used to supply video footage to the police.
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ALPRs are a powerful technology. They’re most commonly used by law enforcement agencies to identify and track cars moving across a city, though they’re also used by repossession companies and landlords.
Think of it as facial recognition for license plates — cameras trained to look for the alphanumeric codes on cars. When a car is spotted, the system logs the time and location, as well as other information associated with the vehicle. If linked together in a network, ALPRs could essentially track where a car has been throughout the day at any given moment.
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been using ALPR technology to track and locate immigrants in investigations. Its system has access to more than 5 billion points of location data collected by readers in parking lots, on roads and at toll booths.
Increasingly, ALPR technology has found its way into the hands of the average citizen. The Los Angeles Times reported that parts of the city, as well as communities in 30 states, pay up to $2,000 a camera to Flock Safety, a company that offers license plate readers to track every car that passes through a neighborhood.
Rekor has now made it cheap enough that any homeowner could buy it.
“We decided to put a product out there that was more affordable for the home,” Berman said. “If you have a second home, you might want to know if people are on your property. It’s not a bad thing to have.”
Tracking your neighbors
Watchman customers log license plates in a list. The system sends notifications every time the car with that license plate is caught on their camera. In a promotional video for Watchman, Rekor said it could deter package thieves by flagging their cars.
Berman said the system isn’t constantly monitoring cars that pass by. Only OpenALPR’s premium customers, who pay $50 a month instead of $5, can flag every car not on a customer’s list.
Even though the home edition doesn’t log every car that drives by, Berman acknowledged that a dedicated person would be able to discover the license plates of all passing cars using Rekor’s technology. That person would have to watch hours of footage, pause every time a car passed, write down the number and then log it into Watchman. Berman doesn’t believe that scenario is likely.
“If someone wants to invest an effort to do it, I think anything’s possible,” he said. “I just don’t think anybody’s going to do that.”
While Berman said Watchman’s ALPR is just as effective as the law enforcement edition, he noted key differences between the two versions. Police have access to names, addresses and location history when they use license plate readers, but the average citizen won’t, he said.
A private user will only be able to get the license plate number and an alert each time it’s detected, Berman said. But even that would be enough for privacy concerns, said the EFF’s Guariglia.
“Even with just one ALPR set up in front of your house, it is enough to be able to learn about people — to see their patterns of movement, when they come down your street, at what time, what cars they drive — which is information that can be used to infer incredibly personal things about a person,” Guariglia said. “This especially poses a problem if your ALPR covers a road that leads to the parking lot of a law firm or a mental health facility.”
A driver also has no say in being logged by someone’s license plate reader, or even the knowledge that their vehicle was being tracked.
The explosion of internet-connected cameras in household products like Amazon’s Ring and Google’s Nest Cam, which are installed on doorsteps and gaze onto the world, made Watchman possible, Berman said.
Adding his company’s license plate reading software to those devices seemed like a logical next step, Berman said. By pricing Watchman lower than a Netflix subscription, the company is aiming to get this technology in as many homes as possible.
“This is what we always feared with the proliferation of these private surveillance systems,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “Once you install the hardware, it becomes so cheap and easy to add more and more invasive and dystopian technology on top of that.”
License plate readers presented a privacy concern even when they were only in law enforcement’s hands, because the technology allowed for constant tracking of public spaces.
On OpenALPR’s premium version, police can access people’s license plate reader data if customers choose to opt in, which customers have done, Berman said.
He also noted that police could use ALPRs from people’s homes to help with investigations, like asking private citizens to add a specific car’s license plate to their watch lists and provide officers with any data available.
“That’s probably something police could do and probably something they want to do,” Berman said. “The homeowners might want the police to do that. That’s between the police and their community.”
Berman doesn’t see his company’s ALPR as a surveillance tool, despite the technology’s historical use for tracking and locating people. His customers have used license plate readers for car washes and parking lots and considered using it for drive-thrus, so that fast food chains could remember returning customers.
With Watchman, he’s envisioned ALPRs as a convenience, a tool that could integrate with smart home tech like the Google Nest and the Amazon Echo. For example, he suggested the cameras could pick up your license plate when you arrive home and automatically adjust the thermostat inside.
While it offers all these amenities for ALPR owners for the comforts of their own homes, privacy advocates warn that this technology’s expansion will create a chilling effect beyond the owner’s doorsteps.
“When we create this panopticon of vehicle tracking, you create the opportunity to track innocent people in public,” said Cahn of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “It’s far past time for our court systems to catch up and realize that when people are deploying these AI systems in the public space, they are stripping countless bystanders of their privacy.”