Canadian Security Magazine

Licence plate recognition tool used for auto theft recovery and border security

By Sarah Lysecki   

News Transportation

From electronic toll collection and traffic activity monitoring to border security, licence plate recognition technology is used widely all over the globe, but here at home the Canadian market is slower to adopt the technology compared to other places like the United Kingdom, where the technology was invented about 30 years ago.

Both the UK and Italy have national automatic number plate recognition (ALPR) programs. ALPR is another name for LPR, which is also known as automatic vehicle identification (AVI), car plate recognition (CPR) and automatic number plate recognition (ANPR).

LPR is a mass surveillance method that uses optical character recognition software on images to read the licence plates on vehicles. Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software translates images of text, such as a licence plate, into editable text or into a standard encoding scheme representing them such as American Standard Code Information Interchange (ASCII) or Unicode.

It was a trip to Europe for a conference that inspired a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer to test it out to help with auto theft in lower mainland B.C. The RCMP in B.C. is the first and only detachment in the country to pilot the technology, says Const. Dave Babineau, strategic communication officer, "E" Division Traffic Services, RCMP in Langley B.C.

The "E" Division Traffic Services in Langley  has been working with Blue Max Canada, a Surrey, B.C.-based vendor of ALPR equipment, since late 2006 on a three-part pilot project. The first two parts of the pilot were two, two-week periods to collect data with the help of the International Centre for Urban Research Studies (ICURS) at Simon Fraser University and University College of the Fraser Valley. The third phase of the pilot, which is six months long and is expected to wrap up in a few months, involves the actual testing of the product.

For the pilot, which has cost $650,000 to date, the ALPR units are only being deployed in the Lower Mainland for auto crime such as car theft and traffic enforcement with the Integrated Municipal Provincial Auto Crime Team (IMPACT) and the Integrated Road Safety Units (IRSU). The division has six APLR-equipped cruisers, two marked and four unmarked, that are being used as part of the pilot.

The cruisers each contain an onboard computer in the trunk where licence plates of interest or a "hotlist" is stored and updated every morning. Hotlists are comprised of stolen licence plates, plates associated to stolen vehicles, prohibited drivers, unlicenced drivers and uninsured vehicles, for example. The vehicles have been deployed in specific corridors, bridges and highways that have been identified by ICURS as locations that are used by prohibited drivers, unlicenced drivers, and people driving stolen and uninsured vehicles.

At present, the ALPR system in use by police in B.C. has access to selected motor vehicle branch data from the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) and stolen vehicle data from the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC). The ALPR database is capable of being expanded to include vehicles associated to charged persons, crime vehicles, sex offenders and wanted persons but is not being used for that purpose in this instance.

During the test phase, the RCMP is not notifying the public to ensure accurate results in its analysis of the technology. As a result, the RCMP has not made any arrests for breaches of the law during the pilot project. The RCMP plans on notifying the public before fully rolling out the technology with the hope of deterring people from breaking the law. Notifying the public is one of the issues that surrounds the privacy implications of this technology.

The RCMP maintains that it is well aware of the importance of complying with the federal privacy act and that it has taken all measures to ensure data such as the vehicle's image is purged from the system when required by law. Under Canada's federal privacy legislation, this is required every three months.

At the municipal law enforcement level, Calgary Police Services and Toronto Police Services are using the technology to locate parked stolen vehicles.

Brian Shockley, director of marketing for PIPS Technology, says law enforcement is getting the most publicity out of the markets his company serves. PIPS customers include retailers, such as gas bars, parking enforcement and access control. While Shockley said law enforcement is usually the shortest sales cycle, it's not the biggest market that PIPS Technology sells to.

"The biggest market would be things like border security," he said, adding that PIPS Technology is working on a large proposal in the U.S. with border security as well on one with tolling.

Canada Border Security Agency, for example, uses a stationary application of the ALPR for border security.

IBM, which in April launched the Smart Surveillance System (S3), is working with law enforcement agencies around the globe. S3 is a piece of middleware for use in surveillance systems that provides video-based behavioral analysis capabilities.

Michael Martin, senior managing consultant, IBM Global Business Services, IBM Canada, said the use of LPR to gather people's information might be tripped up by the Personal Information and Electronic Documents Ac (PIPEDA). But, he added, "If you follow the rules of PIPEDA and you do things the way you’re supposed to do then you’ll be okay."

Likewise, David Drell, vice-president of solutions engineering at CoVi, which is based in Austin, Texas, said CoVi is currently working with a gas station in the U.K. and has not come across any privacy regulation issues. "There's no expectation of privacy on licence plates," he said. "If I'm out on the road I can see your license plate number any time that I want. Once I have that number written down, what can I do with it."

In his experience, Drell said LPR is, "making a big improvement in the productivity of the police force."

The RCMP is optimistic about the outcome of the pilot project. The B.C. detachment expects to meet or exceed the success the U.K. has achieved with ALPR. According to the RCMP, U.K. studies show arrest rates for ALPR officers are 10 times the arrest rates of non-ALPR officers. Eighty per cent of the vehicles that ALPR identifies are associated to criminals.

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