In this issue we are going to look at one of the newest and, what many consider, the most invasive form of cyber tracing: license plate recognition, or LPR. In an industry already beset with an array of privacy issues, this medium of cybertracking is a vast and virtually unknown network of surveillance, rapidly expanding through municipal/law enforcement cameras and private sector cameras. Research into the subject indicates Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) was invented in 1976 at the Police Scientific Development Branch in the United Kingdom and came into wide use with new developments in cheaper software during the 1990s. The collection of ANPR data for future use was documented in the early 2000s. The first documented case of ANPR being used to help solve a murder occurred in November 2005, in Bradford, UK. In this instance ANPR played a vital role in locating and subsequently convicting killers of Sharon Beshenivsky.
In the United States, ANPR systems are more commonly referred to as Automatic License Plate Reader/Recognition (ALPR) technology, due to differences in language. “Number Plates” are referred to as “License Plates” in the United States.
ALPR, widespread among law enforcement agencies at the city, county, state and federal level, has become a major component in intelligence gathering, as well as for recovery of stolen vehicles, identification of wanted felons and monitoring for Amber Alerts.
Pioneers in the U.S.'s LPR industry envisioned an application in the automobile repossession industry. Almost overnight recovery agency tow trucks were installing cameras and building a history of tag locations.
Three major companies emerged: Digital Recognition Network (DRN), Plate Locate and MVTRAC. As the technology improved so did the strategies for obtaining tag histories. Agencies began to place their cameras on smaller automobiles which used much less fuel, had access to more locations and were not as conspicuous as a tow truck.
The data which was once sold only to the repossession agencies began to find other markets which included investigation agencies, lenders and skip trace companies. One of the companies’ websites states “… vehicle location data and analytics to guide your collections strategy. Mitigate repossessions by making right party contact and curing loans where possible or accelerate repossession treatment for faster recovery.”
It goes on to say, “Transform your recovery process, reduce days to recovery by 50%, prevent charge-offs and ensure compliance. Direct agents to the correct address the first time and stage for live, on the spot recovery with a … Provider,” and “Recover smarter with the … Recovery Network that gives you access to thousands of LPR cameras nationwide working to pickup your assignments, 24/7. It’s fast, efficient and fully compliant.”
Today we do not even notice the small vehicles that prowl up and down the aisles of a shopping mall parking lot or through the labyrinth of apartment complex parking areas, searching for cars to repossess. Four high-speed, license plate reading cameras are attached to the hood of these vehicles, scanning cars in every direction, scooping up license plate data and snapping tens of thousands of photographs. This grows the database exponentially, now containing billions of plate numbers and their static location.
This innovative form of cybertracking has revolutionized the skip-tracing, collection and repossession business and I am informed by many purchasers of the data that using this type of cybertracking technology has doubled and tripled their production.
Two questions then surface: 1) who can purchase the equipment to use this technology and what is the cost, 2) who can purchase the data and what is the cost?
To answer the first question is just about anyone who can afford the initial cost of cameras would be able to purchase and run the cameras, including but not limited to repossession agencies, towing companies, security companies, private investigation agencies and even private individuals. As to the cost, I spoke with one of the members of Eagle Group USA, Stephanie Findley of IR Services in Houston, Texas, recognized as a subject matter expert. Used cameras could be purchased in the $5,000 to $7,000 range while a set of new cameras would usually run around $14,000.
The cost to purchase a “hit” on a vehicle you are searching for seems to be in the $300 to $400 range.
There are a lot of changes currently occurring in the LPR industry with numerous mergers and acquisitions as well as a growing concern of privacy. These topics will be explored in the next issue.