The Global War on Terror and Automatic License Plate Recognition

By Cousineau, Matt | Canadian Review of Sociology, February 2013 | Go to article overview

The Global War on Terror and Automatic License Plate Recognition


Cousineau, Matt, Canadian Review of Sociology


THE BLACK AND white Columbia Police car cruised past me in front of the Hy-Vee grocery store. After turning right onto one of the parking lot lanes and motoring past dozens of other cars parked at a 45[degrees] angle to it, the police car drove out of the parking lot. Although sights like these are ordinary occurrences in many of our lives, this one was different. The police car was no ordinary police car. Mounted on the back of this squad car were two black and rectangular cameras angled outward at 45 on the left and right sides of the trunk lid. Wired to a laptop computer inside the car, these cameras automatically scan and identify up to 1,800 license plates per minute before comparing them to FBI databases (Steffen 2010). There was no flash of bright light when the cameras snapped a shot of a plate, the squad car never slowed down on a particular vehicle, and the police officer never got out of the car. A sight like this is exemplary of a growing pattern in American local, county, state, and federal policing practices. Exurban, suburban, state, and federal police in the United States are increasingly using what has been called Automatic License Plate Recognition, or ALPR to identify license plates and then compare them with databases.

ALPR can be considered a kind of computerized and automated closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance system. While CCTV tends to pipe the video imagery from several cameras to a central location where it is displayed on many screens monitored by workers, ALPR does this and more. The labor of coding imagery into organizational categories like license plate characters is automated so that software identifies the characters and then compares them with databases before alerting a police officer if a match is made. While much has been written about nonautomated CCTV surveillance (i.e., Gill and Spriggs 2005; Goold 2004; Newburn and Hayman 2001; Norris, McCahill, and Wood 2004b [special issue of Surveillance & Society on the "Politics of CCTV in Europe and Beyond"[; Painter and Tilly 1999), ALPR has been neglected in the literature.

Corbett (2008:8-9) investigates ALPR as part of a broader discussion of traffic surveillance in the United Kingdom including speed cameras, electronic tagging of vehicles to tax drivers for road usage, and satellite technologies to restrict vehicle speeds to the posted limits. Corbett (2008) argues that these forms of roads surveillance, along with ALPR, depend on public-private partnerships, which pose many problems. Public organizations like police departments partner with private sector firms like camera manufacturers, video screen makers, software developers, and geographic information specialists to produce and analyze the data constructed by these assemblages. The problem with these relationships, Corbett (2008:4) suggests, is that they often lead to what McCahill and Norris (2003) have called "function creep" where technology designed for one purpose takes other functions on board, or data produced for one purpose reaches out to take on other functions. For example, data about driving habits and vehicles that were originally produced to enforce laws may eventually be marketed and sold to vehicle manufacturers looking for ways to sell their new models to drivers (Corbett 2008:4). In this paper, I build on Corbett's (2008) insights.

While Corbett (2008) explored ALPR in the United Kingdom, I focus more on them in the United States. I also find reason to believe that in this U.S. context there are problematic public-private partnerships. However, these public-private partnerships are not only about the marriage of business and policing. They are also about the close relationships between the U.S. military and business. I argue that the similarities between Pentagon representations of a military surveillance system called Combat Zones that See and representations of ALPR demonstrates this. I also want to argue that like the problematic public-private partnerships identified by Corbett (2008), there is another mode of function creep at work. …

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