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Boston has garbage trucks that can scan your license plate - what?

The Dig reports that until recently license-plate data going back to 2012 was available on a publicly accessible server on the Web, because somebody at either the Boston Transportation Department at the private companies that run the system was unable to figure out the basics of data security.

Left unanswered is the question of why garbage trucks are roaming the city with license-plate scanners, although the Dig also notes that Boston Police - which said it stopped its own license scooping in 2013 - was getting daily reports from the database.

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Comments

From a smelly garbage truck?
Kind of creepy.

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Perfectly legitimate for license plates to be viewed by ANYONE, am or maching.

So lose the Big Brother nonsense, it's getting old.

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Because clearly you don't get the idea.

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are PUBLIC records. And the Dig reporter must have one heck of a tinfoil hat, given his obvious high level of paranoia. I especially like the "They can get your address from your resident parking permit, thus being able to rob your house." nonsense.

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a 1994 federal law, the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, is supposed to prevent non-governmental third parties from accessing a person’s name, home address, or telephone number through a motor vehicle database. For safety reasons, plate numbers are not personal information, but federal safeguards have for some reason not extended to Xerox, which sells “comprehensive name and address acquisition services” that toll and parking providers use to locate and ticket violators.

Not. Legal.

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garbage truck scans a car and finds that the car is not registered or is wanted in connection with a crime or is stolen - these are all data points related to the car, not to the address of the car owner. Where's the legal problem?

I'm not saying the system isn't currently being illegally used, but that there is a potential to legally and usefully use it to find stolen vehicles, unregistered cars, etc... to both possibly reduce crime and ensure cars being driven and parked on the streets are legal.

Or are you saying that if I find that there is a car which has a lapsed registration on the street and you are the owner of record, it's not legal to link the two pieces of data together?

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They way in which it is being handled is not legal. If the personal information is being collected and stored by a third-party (in this case, Xerox), then it is a violation of federal law.

Regarding scanning: In theory, I'm fine with it, but it's all about how it's done. Think of a "Wanted poster" scenario. Let's say John Walsh is running around town hanging up wanted posters. You see one, and as you walk down the street, you look everyone you pass right in the eye. You never give the people who don't match the description a second thought, let alone stop to talk or ask their names, etc. Then you see the bandit, and you take action. When applied to license plates, I see scanning as nothing more than a really efficient way to do this for "wanted" vehicles, instead of wasting resources doing it one car at a time. Again, in theory.

Now applying modern technology, this should be easily doable. For example, I'd support a token-based system where every license plate in the database had its own unique token that stood in as a barrier to the corresponding personal information.

Scan plate > check against database > no match found > token remains encrypted, no connection to personal data made or saved.
Scan plate > check against database > match found > safeguard step to confirm match > token decrypted, data accessed, action taken.

And it should go without saying at this point that this database should not be third party.

What we actually have is a system where third parties are storing and profiting off of this data, while leaving it unprotected and not even taking accountability when caught.

It really isn't that difficult to protect privacy AND public safety, just difficult to put people who actually will into power. To prove this point, there is a great Frontline documentary on Netflix right now about the NSA domestic spying program, and much of it deals with the people who developed the original program and technologies decades before, as well as some top NSA officials, being powerless to stop when it started to go "too far"

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social security numbers, which have grossly abused since the mid 20th century, even more-so in our time. A BLATANT violation of the original (alleged) intent and wording.

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"a person’s name, home address, or telephone number through a motor vehicle database"

Read that again until you understand it, Cutiepie. The information consists of plate # and location.

Not a person's name, not their home address, not their telephone number, and it's not coming from a motor vehicle database (which is defined as the state's database, not a private one.)

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Puckerpuss.

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But I'll keep playing your game. The article clearly states that all of this personal information was on a 3rd party, PRIVATE server, and that the license plate scanners pull data from them. We're not talking about the scanners on trucks anymore. We're not talking about your opinion on the line between public and private personal information. We're talking about this information being provided by 3rd party services, which appears to be in violation of federal law.

I know reading comprehension is terribly difficult, so let me go ahead and emphasize some of the key information.

We'll start with this, so it's fresh in your head:

a 1994 federal law, the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, is supposed to prevent non-governmental third parties from accessing a person’s name, home address, or telephone number through a motor vehicle database.

Now some text from the article:

ALPRs were eventually noticed by watchdogs, and in 2004 spurred a public records request, which was denied by the BTD on the grounds that the database was privately owned and “on loan” from AutoVu.

That was more than 10 years ago, and the pitfalls of using third-party outfits for these kinds of operations appear to have become more treacherous. Back then, few people were talking about the liability of having private companies store privileged and potentially compromising metadata. But even though the vulnerability of these systems has since been noted by privacy rights groups, cities all around the world still trust businesses like Genetec.

And the most damning piece:

a 2013 company case study even quotes former BTD Parking Clerk Director Gina Fiandaca praising the enterprise. “Xerox is always protective of the city, our data, and our integrity,” Fiandaca said.

It's really great that Xerox is so protective of our dat...wait a minute, shouldn't that be illegal? I feel like I remember reading that "a 1994 federal law, the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, is supposed to prevent non-governmental third parties from accessing a person’s name, home address, or telephone number through a motor vehicle database" somewhere.

Also, at this point, I'm kind of convinced you either work for, or are related to someone who works for, the city or one of these companies.

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The DPPA is like "freedom of speech" in how people tend to overapply it. Just like how the 1st amendment only applies to government rules about speech, and not private companies, the DPPA only applies to data collected and supplied by state DMVs. If you can manage to scrape that data yourself from license-plate scans, tax records, parking permits, traffic tickets, and insurance company data, then you're free to open it up or sell it without running afoul of the DPPA.

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Scraped all of the data together themselves by scanning plates and going from there, then sold the technology and database to law enforcement?

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the smell test.

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Leaving aside the question of whether the city should be collecting the data at all, it makes perfect sense to have the license plate scanners on garbage trucks. Who else goes down nearly every public street we have, at least once a week?

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NOT the police.

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Why would we want the police wasting time and effort visiting every street in the city each week, whether or not there was a reason to?

Jeez, using that logic why not expect them to keep the same itinerary as the post office and be knocking on everyone's door six days a week?

p.s. ChrisInEastie has got it exactly right - it's not difficult to protect privacy and public safety. It's just that there's money to be made by doing it the wrong way, and we elect pols who are too technologically illiterate to know better.

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If the data could be handled securely and if the data isn't kept for any length of time, then a system where the city automatically scans for vehicles which have lapsed registrations or were reported stolen could be a good thing. I know someone who had their car stolen, then dumped, sans airbags about 8 blocks away. In that scenario, the garbage truck scanner would have found the stolen car with the least amount of legwork involved by anyone. Of course it assumes the car is parked so the license plate is visible...

I think the key is that the data should be deleted in some short time period.

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License plate scanners don't creep me out the way face scanners do. Ideally the city would use this data to scan for stolen cars (as you say) and also to check for abandoned cars and other parking violations.

Of course knowing the city they would spend millions on this system, leave the data unprotected, and then not actually use the data for anything productive.

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'protected'?! The data was compiled on a PUBLIC street - no expectation of privacy. Let's lose the tinfoil hat paranoia here - it's becoming idiotic.

Plus, it's LICENSE PLATES - hardy the end of the world if there's a 'security' breach.

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Just because something could be seen by a human being on a street doesn't mean that it's automatically fine if we start recording and publishing everything that happens on that street for everyone to see. Technology changes the game.

Consider what such a system would do for stalkers, or would-be murderers of any kind. Anyone who knew your license plate could go to this database and find out where you've been driving and parking. That is an absurd and dangerous invasion of privacy.

Before technology made this type of data collection and storage possible, we may not have needed to specifically address this because no one was doing it the hard way. If, back in the 1970s, a person or organization hired hundreds of private investigators to watch wherever people drove and parked, and then published the information in the newspaper, you can bet people would have been upset and considered it wrong. Now that technology has made it infinitely easier, we can see that it is wrong.

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If I look out my window and see you, Joe Anon, walking down the street, and I make a posting on UHub that says, "Joe Anon walked in front of 285 Washington Street heading East at 3:21 PM on August 25th," that's all perfectly legal, and there's no expectation of privacy. And if someone puts together a database into which I and 20,000 other people all submit such sightings, and in which it's possible to get a full, minute-by-minute track of Joe Anon's movements and whereabouts throughout the day, then it's still perfectly legal in that it relies only on publicly available data, but it starts to be the sort of thing that makes people uncomfortable and say, "maybe we shouldn't be doing this."

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but this relates to personal property kept in a public space.

If the city of Boston wants to fly drones over my house to check for code compliance or use heat imaging scanners without a warrant, that's the kind of stuff which the government can't/shouldn't be trusted with.

I do think it is very shady to claim that the police are no longer doing this, only to find out that they are technically not doing it, but still getting the data via garbage truck scanners. However, the underlying concept isn't the issue for me, just the execution.

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I believe that a system like you describe is the only way that we could/should allow these new technologies to be used by law enforcement. These types of equipment could be very powerful, and so they need lots of oversight, and we need to make sure they only get used when the need is justified and that we aren't storing data about people who aren't the target of the investigation for very long.

Unfortunately, it seems almost impossible to set up a system where we can trust the government to do that for us. Not only does law enforcement seem unwilling to commit the resources needed to protect against abuse, they seem to actively engage in abuse of these systems as soon as they get them. It would take a miracle to get a police force that thought about these tools the way we do.

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There is nothing more public than a license plate on a parked car sitting in a public street. If it ain't private, you don't have a privacy interest.

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Aren't the issue here. Read the whole Dig article.

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Or read the fine print when you do? If I had much of a choice, I'd much prefer data collection for public safety and crime investigation over an app following me around for commercial exploitation.

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Let's break this canard that just because something like your license plate is "public" to the world that any data gleaned from it is just as "public".

Yes, the alphanumeric value of your license plate is public...but it doesn't exactly say who you are or what you do, now does it?

But if I note where your license plate is found. Or I follow your car. Or I coordinate the time and location that I saw your license plate over a long period of time, then I've created far more information than the alphanumeric value presupposes all by itself. "Public data" is not just a raw value. It's also all of the derived data that you can generate by cross-correlation of other data. And there is where we get into data you didn't think of or didn't want someone else to be able to have on you.

You can identify someone almost uniquely (87% of us are unique) purely by your zip code, gender, and date of birth. You wouldn't even question handing out any one or two or even all three of those pieces of information, but all together they make a signature of who you are that only one or two others are even possibly sharing. If I have those three items and then a list of movies you've rented or restaurants you've been to, then I can start to form a profile of you that you may not even realize is out there.

License plates are a single datapoint of unique value. Learning its pattern of travel could say a lot more about you than you want to be "public".

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The apologists over it all being “public” anyway have no concept of the amount of extremely insightful information you can gather about someone by where their license plates are seen daily. Its incredibly invasive, for an example just look at your Google Map history to see how creepy it is for someone to be able to pinpoint your whereabouts on a daily if not hourly basis from information compiled at massive scale like this.

Public in the single instance, but *incredibly* private in aggregate.

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If they keep the data, it's terrible.

If they don't and just check for outstanding violations, it's not much more big brother-ish than a beat cop checking for expired regs.

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A beat cop or BTD official isn't noting time and location alongside every plate they look at unless they're writing a ticket against it. The automation is storing this information for EVERY plate instead of only violations and it's doing so in order to do a lot of later calculations against all sorts of "watchlists" (read the article)...some that have nothing to do with city management. They have to hold onto the data for some amount of time to make their comparisons because there's no realtime system of communication to the trash truck in the time it takes to pass a car (and even if there was, it'd then have to alert authorities, etc.). And some of the things it's looking up aren't even for alerting authorities to an immediate problem, they're for things like "is this a known gang member's car?" which isn't entirely clear as to what they even do with having learned that. My guess is they use it to flag which ones to save even longer so they can see if there's something the gang unit should know about when it comes to compiling evidence against gang activity down the road some day.

Now, you can apologize and say you're only talking about the "ideal" system where it could make on-the-spot determination of problems and only keep the problem set just like a cop handing out tickets...but that's clearly NOT the case. The concern isn't the "ideal" because watching you defend some "ideal" that we can all accept the outcomes from is meaningless. I'm sure there's an "ideal" situation where these things aren't even necessary because just have a cop on every corner who paces their particular block once every 30s to see if anything changes or whatever.

The ability to abuse these systems is too rife with privacy concerns...AND it's happening right now with no clear end in sight!

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I haven't stated anywhere on this post that the current practice is a good idea or that it's legal, but that the overall concept of garbage truck license plate scanners could be an interesting idea if done right.

Sorry that the concept of discussing theoretical solutions is too hard to grasp for you. When I wrote "If they keep the data, it's terrible" what I meant was that if the city were to keep the data collected, then it's a terrible system. But thanks for explaining what I already know and especially thanks for using CAPS in certain spots so I knew which parts were SUPER important.

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It seems what you're talking about is anonymity, not privacy. Privacy is what happens when no one should be watching. Parking on the street ain't that. Anonymity comes from being one car out of thousands parked on the street. But there's nothing in the law that says you have a right to be anonymous. The fact that the government compels us to leave unique plates on our cars shows it to be quite the contrary: you're not just another automobile, you're plate number 123 XYZ.

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No government body should be watching in such a way that they can develop an integrated model of my activities based on time, location, and identifying data like a license plate.

My ability to move freely about the city without considering whether the government is constantly logging my whereabouts and checking me against watchlists is a Constitutional guarantee.

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police power, which usually requires some civilian check to prevent abuses. Yes, the instance of your license plate in a public place is public knowledge, but it becomes a different thing when the government amasses a database tracking every location of your car, every day; that is needlessly intrusive into your private affairs.

Were the BTD to, say, do a daily scrub of the license numbers of people they had no need to track (those not violating parking laws, for instance, or not being a deadbeat on past violations), you might feel a little better about it. A compliance regime that forced the local authority to ensure the privacy of that information or face legal / financial penalties would also be a good step.

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In the article (people don't seem to be reading the article), it's not even just the government holding onto this data. BTD doesn't have the analysts or software to do this. They're farming the collection/repository to companies like Genetec and the analysis/comparison/models to Xerox. Now, THIRD PARTY companies are in possession of your information and violating their agreements with the city about protecting it (otherwise this article wouldn't even have been able to be written)...so who knows how else the company is either using or abusing or screwing up with the government's data about you!

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Not gonna lie, I'd love for a lic plate scanner mounted on BPD, BTD vehicles that disburse tickets automatically for plates scanned on double-parked cars. Potential for misuse? - Yes, absolutely. But no reason other cars, bikes, busses, and peds should be inconvenienced and endangered in more egregious cases because someone's too lazy to loop around the block. Or idle off-street.

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It's the street-sweeper trucks, not the garbage collection trucks.

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Posted an update to clarify

I inferred the use of ALPR-equipped street sweepers by the BTD from the presence of a database on its server titled STSWEEP.txt, and the fact of Xerox’s advertising this component of service in its marketing material.

A brochure, Street Sweeper Parking Enforcement Automated Sweeper Mounted Camera, describes how the ”optical character recognition (OCR) camera is mounted on the outside of the street sweeper and captures the license plate of the offender. The LED lights pulse amber light to aid in the capture of the plate read.”

https://www.beaconreader.com/kenneth-lipp/boston-parking-sweeping-up-lic...

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