Automated number plate technology is gaining widespread use across Australia and forms part of the Coalition’s crime policy. The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above. Is there a quick fix for detecting unregistered cars, terrorists, people with outstanding warrants or people who are simply driving too fast or for too long? The ANPR technology has been around for several decades and is being increasingly embraced by law enforcement agencies in Australia and overseas as installation and operational costs continue to fall. High-definition infrared digital camera(s) to illuminate and capture an image or a partial image of the number plate.
Fixed or onboard ruggedised processors capable of handling multiple cameras use optical character recognition (OCR) software to convert the grabbed image(s) to a searchable text string. Wi-Fi, 3G or some other form of high-speed data network to transmit the number of interest, or results from the onboard systems to a (typically central) computer for processing and receipt of information of interest. A database (preferably national) of known number plates, stolen vehicles, registration details, alerts, status of registered owner and so on. Onboard display in the police vehicle to present the results (or beep to indicate that the vehicle is one of interest).


Until recently, the time-frames required to process a plate have been somewhat problematic.
In the case of a mobile unit, it takes time to position the police vehicle, obtain the picture, convert it to text (not as easy as it may seem), use an onboard system or send it using a non-terrestrial network service (anyone using a mobile phone will know how flaky that connection can be in some areas). Then you need to wait for the computer to search the database (hoping the database contains interstate licences if the car is from across the border) and display the results in a meaningful manner.
Increasing popularity reflects perceptions that this use of technology is benign and that it has multiple uses, such as detecting unregistered vehicles, semi-trailers whose drivers have breached multiple driving rules or speed limits, or facilitating processing of warrants.
The same ANPR technology is used in a range of applications varying from law enforcement, tollways, parking, congestion charging and average speed calculations (as seen on the Hume Highway and around the ACT). In the US it is used to patrol schools and playgrounds to identify potential sexual predators, and set up temporarily at checkpoints to identify drivers with prior drink-driving convictions. Several years ago CrimTrac, Australia’s crime data clearinghouse, conducted a major investigation into the use of ANPR and found that the technology works.
The technology has also attracted criticism overseas, with the UK Information Commissioner for example condemning its use in the Royston “ring of steel” (identifying every vehicle’s movement through a particular town) and the American Civil Liberties Union warning people in the US that “You Are Being Tracked”.
And now you understand how the technology works, in thinking about the election - and so-called “regulatory creep” - we need to also consider how it might be misused.


Should you have any special requirements for appeals, these can be accommodated upon agreement of services. If an issue persists we will send an engineer to site within x working days from the time the issue is escalated. We use a Creative Commons Attribution NoDerivatives licence, so you can republish our articles for free, online or in print. This may for example be onboard a police vehicle or it may be a central server somewhere, or both.
This would potentially be updated with real time data collected by the vehicles or stationary mounted camera systems.
It sidestepped persistent questions about privacy, given that the technology tracks innocent and guilty alike.




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