Police can track cars nationwide with new license plate surveillance network

The system is basically facial recognition technology, but for cars.

Police can track cars nationwide with new license plate surveillance network
Flock Safety
  • Some police departments use automatic license plate readers to track suspects.
  • A company called Flock Safety is now allowing police departments to opt in to a national network, which shares data on car movements.
  • Privacy advocates are concerned about the potential for errors and abuse.

Earlier this month, a man shot a police officer in Pell City, Alabama, and fled the scene. Police didn't know who the shooter was, but witnesses were able to describe his car and license plate. The suspect was arrested just hours later.

One factor that helped officers make the quick arrest was the Flock Safety system, which operates a network of cameras that track car movements by reading license plates. After plugging in the suspect's tag number, Pell City officers were not only able to see where the car went in their own city, but also in nearby Heflin.

"We can actually look at Heflin's Flock camera," Pell City Police Chief Paul Irwin told the St. Clair Times. "That's a huge advantage."

About 400 U.S. law enforcement agencies currently use Flock Safety cameras. Now, the company wants to give those agencies the option to connect to one network, the "Total Analytics Law Officers Network," or TALON. This opt-in network would potentially allow law enforcement agencies nationwide to track a car as it drives from coast to coast, assuming it passes through the 700 American cities that have installed Flock Safety cameras.

Map tracking the car movements of a murder suspect in Alabama.

Flock Safety

Flock Safety says its cameras help police solve more crimes. The company website notes that "70% of crime involves a vehicle" and law enforcement agencies say "a license plate is the best piece of evidence to track leads and solve crimes."

But critics of Flock Safety have raised concerns over the potential for errors and abuse. In August, for example, police in Colorado held a family at gunpoint after a license plate reader flagged a car as stolen. It turned out to be the wrong vehicle.

With TALON, police would also have unprecedented information about the movements of citizens. It's not hard to see how this data could be abused. Think, for example, of the Florida police officer who used the Driver and Vehicle Information Database (D.A.V.I.D.) to get women's contact information so he could ask them out on dates.

Flock Safety says it designed its system under an "ethical framework," noting that it deletes data on car movements every 30 days. The company also says its customers (which include private neighborhoods, in addition to police departments) own 100 percent of the data.

But the company can't guarantee that the public gets a say in whether to install the system. What's more, even if constituents had accepted Flock Safety being installed cameras in their own community, they might not want police to join TALON, which would put their local data on the national radar.

Flock Safety

It's currently unclear how many police departments plan to join TALON. But like the advent of facial recognition technologies, the spread of automatic license plate reader technology highlights how mass surveillance isn't always driven by the state.

"We often think of dystopian surveillance as something that's imposed by an authoritarian government," Evan Greer, deputy director of the digital rights group Fight for the Future, told CNET. "It's clearer every day that there is an enormous threat posed by privately owned and managed surveillance regimes, which will be weaponized by the rich and powerful to protect not just their wealth but the exploitative system that helped them amass it."

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.


Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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Credit: Helen_f via AdobeStock
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