Publication Gets Access to City

Publication Gets Access to City's License Plate Database

The city of Oakland has 33 automated license plate readers (LPRs) that are used to help the Oakland Police Department (OPD) keep track of people by knowing where they’ve been. This is a great way for law enforcement to keep their eyes on the “bad guys” to keep the “good guys” in their jurisdiction safe.

With a database of over 4.6 million reads over 1.1 million unique plates between December 23, 2010 and May 31, 2014, Oakland PD has built quite a dataset of plates. I would think access to this database would be private, used only by the police; but Ars Technica, a publication devoted to technology that caters to technologists and IT professionals, obtained access to the entire LPR dataset of the OPD via a public records request.

So, what did Ars do with this data? Well, they custom built a visualization tool that enabled them to make educated guesses about where a target lives or works, which eventually could represent a pattern of someone’s consistent movements, their daily routine. As an example, Ars was able to accurately guess the block where an Oakland city council member lives after less than a minute of researching using his license plate data.

To me, this is all a bit scary. Where is/should the “invasion-of-privacy-almost-stalking-line” be drawn on technology that is created to help us live safer more security lives, but is being used for other purposes?

Image: Leonard Zhukovsky /

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