What Do the Fuzz, Repo Men, and McDonald's All Have in Common?
I work in law enforcement and have seen some neat technological advancements come along during my 14 years in the business. One technology that popped with a bit of controversy was License Plate Recognition, or LPR. This is a technology that allows law enforcement to work more efficiently, has definite positive public safety implications, but also has a good amount of controversy as it pertains to privacy and accuracy.
So what is LPR? LPR can be simplified down to two pieces of equipment; a specialized camera (or system of cameras) and a computer (running specialized software). The cameras are highly specialized pieces of equipment featuring infrared for low light image capturing and rugged, water proof casings. Typically, multiple cameras are mounted on the exterior of a law enforcement vehicle covering multiple angles and the cameras are routed to a central computer mounted in the vehicle. The computer system runs software that analyzes the feed from the cameras and recognizes license plates. It converts the data of the image to actually recognize the characters on the license plate as text and then checks the text (the license plate number) against a database. The database of information the license plate is checked against can contain a lot of useful information such as lists of vehicles with expired registration, lists of vehicles known to be driven by suspects of crimes actively being investigated, lists of stolen vehicles or tags, or vehicles actively wanted associated with a crime. As vehicles pass by the LPR equipped patrol car, the camera provides a constant feed to the computer system. The computer system analyzes the feed, isolating the data for each vehicle's license plates from the image, and checks it against a database. If a licence plate of interest is recognized, it flags the tag and alerts the officer in the patrol car almost instantly. Images of the tag and the vehicle are provided on a screen along with specific information as to why the vehicle is of interest. Imagine, if you will, that a child has been kidnapped and the suspect and his/her vehicle is known to law enforcement. A police officer positioned on a busy highway can scan every passing vehicle and be alerted if the suspect vehicle passes by to be able to effect a traffic stop on the suspect vehicle.
A License Plate Recognition camera mounted on the roof of a patrol vehicle.
A better look at an LPR camera.
This technology, as mentioned before, is not without controversy. Those that argue against it's use cite privacy concerns; vocalizing consternation with improper use such as tracking an individual's movements and habits without cause. LPR technology has been labeled by some as a form of mass surveillance and there are arguments that it places law-abiding citizens under surveillance, treating them like criminals. Another complaint is that incorrect information or an out of date database can lead to improper stops and the false seizing of a person's civil liberties. As technology progresses though, and with the advent of cloud based computing, this seems likely to be an increasingly smaller issue as accuracy continues to improve.
The first time I ever encountered LPR technology in a commercial use, around 2010, actually caught me by surprise. Late one night, while most people were asleep, I was dispatched to a Suspicious Activity call in a large subdivision. The 911 caller had gotten out of bed for some reason, and noticed a SUV with cameras mounted on it's roof driving down the street very slowly. At the time there was concern about people breaking into cars in the neighborhood, so the caller immediately called 911. A short time later I arrived in the area and soon located the SUV slow rolling the neighborhood. Upon stopping the vehicle I was shocked to learn that the SUV was owned by a vehicle repossession company and that the employee of the repo company was using a LPR system to scan the neighborhood for cars. The employee explained that every night, they updated their database with lists from multiple creditors of cars being sought for repossession. The repo employee would drive through neighborhoods and when the computer alerted him of the presence of a car on the list, he would confirm it's location and then dispatch a tow-truck to the address to pick the car up. The repo company employee explained that the LPR technology had seriously increased the efficiency with which they were able to locate "wanted" vehicles and seize them for creditors. But use by repo companies is just one of many of the diverse uses by commercial entities.
As this technology has developed, along with cloud based computing, even Home Owner's Associations are getting in on the action. A company called Flock Safety markets a camera system, that when paired with their cloud service, can help neighborhoods combat crime. Flock Safety's system not only can recognize vehicle license plates, but also vehicle types and colors. Flock's system then creates a cloud database with this information that a HOA can search after a crime occurred in their neighborhood to provide intelligence to law enforcement on possible vehicle identification and times. If LPR technology continues to propagate in this manner, it can be a force multiplier for the efforts of crime fighting. As the technology becomes smaller, less expensive, and more accessible, it will prove to be more commonplace in our everyday lives.
Flock Safety's cloud based LPR system.
Recently, McDonald's has begun experimenting with the use of LPRs in it's drive-thru lines in order to bolster efficiency and shorten customer wait times. As some may have noticed, most McDonald's drive-thru lines now feature the McDonald's menu on large digital displays. These high resolution displays are pleasing to the eye with crisp images and information displayed on a high contrast background. The beauty of using the large digital displays for the menu boards is they are easily reconfigurable as menu items change; not just with the introduction of new menu items, but seasonally, and even between breakfast and dinner hours. How does a reconfigurable menu board pair with LPRs? With LPR technology, McDonald's can recognize when a customer's vehicle returns to the drive-thru, and track the driver's purchase history and log this information into a database. Once a customer's purchasing habits and menu preferences have been sufficiently recorded and deciphered, when the customer returns at a future date to the drive-thru, his vehicle would be recognized and menu items the computer system has recorded as the customer's preference would be displayed in a more prominent manner on the digital menu display board. In theory, this would help customers make their menu choices much faster, helping the drive-thru lane move much quicker. Theoretically, a customer could also register a preferred payment method with McDonald's that could be associated with a customer's license plate. A transaction to purchase a meal could happen without having to stop at the payment window to hand over cash or a credit card, thus speeding up the process even more!
Reconfigurable digital menu board.
As technology progresses and evolves, it seems to get a little more creepy when one considers how it impacts our privacy but there is no denying the convenience it can add to everyday life, both for individuals and corporations. Facial recognition is a little more developed than what most people would believe with several companies having robust systems on the market. I imagine one day soon, one will be able to walk into a McDonald's, and after a facial recognition scan, have their preferences prominently displayed before them on the menu board and be able to quickly pay with something as simple as a bio-metric scan or a wink to the computer, à la the movie Minority Report. Creepy, but cool!