This company could turn every home camera into a license plate reader – CNET

A car drives down a street with a license plate aimed at by a camera.

A car drives down a street with a license plate aimed at by a camera.

For $ 5 a month, Rekor's Watchman system could bring automatic license plate reading technology to any home or neighborhood.


License plate readers have been used by the police for years to collect information about millions of people, be it criminal investigation, racial profiles or illegal extortion. Now Rekor Systems wants to put this technology in the hands of your neighbors.

On Thursday, the company launched Watchman, an automatic license plate reading technology that can be installed on any computer Home camera, The recorder software known as OpenALPR can then analyze streaming videos and find license plates recorded in a recording. The product has been publicly available since 2015. However, this is the first time that Rekor is marketing specifically to individual home owners and not to companies.

To attract on-site residents, it offers a sharp drop in prices – from $ 50 a month charged by companies and law enforcement agencies to $ 5 a month, less than the price of a newspaper subscription.

Watchman uses a whitelist / blacklist system that allows customers to record license plates for cars that are approved to be near their homes, or to warn them when a vehicle is marked as a potential threat nearby.

According to Rekor Systems, which is already working with police authorities across the country, the home version will work just as well as professional versions of the technology.

"It's as effective and just like our law enforcement version," said Robert Berman, Rekor's CEO. "This is the same product that we use with our customers."

With the launch of Rekor, data protection advocates fear that these automatic license plate readers, also known as ALPRs, could be installed in front of every home to create a network for the police that strengthens their own surveillance technology, which often has to go through the city Hall for approval.

"They essentially get a huge network of ALPRs that they can use for any purpose they want – and in return, citizens can't say what technology their police are using, because technically it is the consumer’s decision to install and that Grant access, "said Matthew Guariglia, a political analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

It is comparable to the situation with which it has developed Ring the doorbell, The company, which is owned by Amazon, has worked with hundreds of US law enforcement agencies to accelerate the rollout of cameras, which in turn can provide video footage to the police.

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Ring convinced the police to join their network …


ALPRs are powerful technology. They are most commonly used by law enforcement agencies to identify and track cars that move around a city. However, they are also used by take-back companies and landlords.

Think of this as facial recognition for license plates – cameras that are trained to search for alphanumeric codes on cars. When a car is discovered, the system logs the time and location, as well as other information associated with the vehicle. When connected in a network, ALPRs can essentially keep track of where a car has been all day at a given time.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Agency uses ALPR technology to track and locate immigrants during investigations. The system has access to more than 5 billion location data collected from readers in parking lots, on streets and at toll stations.

ALPR technology has increasingly found its way into the hands of the average person. The Los Angeles Times reported that parts of the city, as well as communities in 30 states, pay up to $ 2,000 per camera to Flock Safety, a company that offers license plate readers to track every car that drives through a quarter.

Rekor has now made it so cheap that any homeowner can buy it.

"We decided to launch a product that was more affordable for the home," said Berman. "If you have a second home, you may want to know if there are people on your property. It's not a bad thing."

Track your neighbors

Watchman customers log number plates in a list. The system sends notifications every time the car is intercepted with this license plate on the camera. In a promotional video for Watchman, Rekor said it could prevent package thieves from marking their cars.

Berman said that the system does not constantly monitor passing cars. Only OpenALPR premium customers who pay $ 50 a month instead of $ 5 can mark any car that is not on the customer list.

Even if the Home Edition does not record every car that drives past, Berman has admitted that a committed person can use the Rekor technology to identify the number plates of all the cars that drive past. This person had to watch hours of footage, pause, write the number down, and then register it with Watchman every time a car drove past. Berman doesn't think this scenario is likely.

"If someone wants to make an effort, I think anything is possible," he said. "I just don't think anyone will do that."

While Berman said that Watchman's ALPR was as effective as law enforcement spending, he found significant differences between the two versions. The police have access to names, addresses and locations when using license plate readers, but not the average person.

A private user can only get the license plates and a warning each time they are recognized, Berman said. But that would also be enough for data protection reasons, said the EFF-Guariglia.

"Even with just one ALPR in front of your house, it is enough to learn something about people – to see their movement patterns as they come down your street, at what time, with which cars they drive – that is information that can be used to infer incredibly personal things about a person, "said Guariglia. "This is particularly problematic if your ALPR covers a street that leads to the parking lot of a law firm or psychiatric facility."

A driver also has no say if he is registered by a license plate reader or if he knows that his vehicle is being followed.

The explosion of Internet-connected cameras in household products like Amazon's Ring and Google's Nest Cam, which are installed on the doorstep and take a look at the world, enabled Watchman, Berman said.

Adding his company's license plate reading software to these devices seemed a logical next step, Berman said. Watchman's pricing is lower than that of a Netflix subscription, and the company aims to use this technology in as many households as possible.

"We have always feared this with the spread of these private surveillance systems," said Albert Fox Cahn, managing director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. "Once you've installed the hardware, it's becoming so cheap and easy to add more and more invasive and dystopian technologies."

police relations

Screenshot of the installation process for Rekor's OpenALPR system

According to Rekor, ALPR technology is easy to install and can be used with any camera connected to the Internet.

Rekor Systems

License plate readers were a data protection problem even if they were only in the hands of law enforcement agencies because the technology allowed constant tracking of public spaces.

In the premium version of OpenALPR, the police can access the license plate reader data if customers choose to do so, Berman said.

He also pointed out that police could use ALPRs from people's homes for investigations, for example to ask private individuals to include a specific license plate number on their watchlist and to provide officials with all available data.

"This is probably something the police could and would probably want to do," said Berman. "The homeowners may want the police to do this. It's between the police and their community."

Berman does not see his company's ALPR as a surveillance tool, although the technology has been used in the past to track and locate people. Its customers have used license plate readers for car washes and parking lots and are considering using them for the autothrus so that fast food chains can remember recurring customers.

With Watchman, he imagined ALPRs as a practical tool that can be integrated into smart home technologies such as Google Nest and Amazon Echo. For example, he suggested that the cameras could pick up your license plate when you get home and set the thermostat automatically.

While offering ALPR owners all of these amenities for the convenience of their own homes, privacy advocates are warning that expanding this technology will have a frightening effect beyond the owner's front door.

"If we create this vehicle tracking panopticon, you will be able to track innocent people in public," said Cahn of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. "It is a long time since our judicial systems caught up and realized that people who use these AI systems in public spaces rob countless viewers of their privacy."