ALPR: A Formidable Weapon in the War Against Crime and Terror

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counter-terrorism alpr

By John Chigos, CEO of PlateSmart Technologies

With any luck, most of us will never directly experience the horror of being a victim of crime or terrorism. In the United States particularly, we like to feel that we lead charmed lives that are free from the atrocities that those in other parts of the world witness daily.

It is a mistake, however, to think that these dangers can’t touch us in the West; just ask the victims of San Bernardino, Paris, Brussels, Orlando, or a myriad other attacks. Recent years have brought us these events, as well as school shootings, the on-air shooting of a TV reporter in Virginia, attacks against military and government facilities, and many others.

These sensational media stories, furthermore, do not even begin to encompass other types of crimes against persons and property, such as child abductions.

The steadily escalating nature of these threats has resulted in an increased demand for perimeter security. Traditionally, the solution to this demand has been to hire more professional security personnel.

While this kind of human intelligence is certainly a necessary component of any good security solution, it is important to remember that even the best trained and most dedicated human beings have limitations. Chief among these is that they can’t be everywhere at once, which gives rise to the necessity of video surveillance. Even that, however, comes with major drawbacks, not the least of which is that it can only provide evidence after the fact.

As a result, the security-minded have increasingly turned to the relatively new technology of video analytics to fill the gap. Video analytics puts a computerized “brain” behind the “eyes” of security cameras.

Using advanced algorithms, the computer attempts to analyze the video feed and detect objects or suspicious behaviors in the frame, alerting designated security personnel in the event that something is detected. Some examples include facial recognition and so-called “shot-spotter” technology, which is designed to detect gunshots via not only video but also audio.

The Evolution of Video Analytics

The earliest versions of video analytics technology were usually more trouble than they were worth, the expensive systems often producing an overwhelming number of false alarms and only rarely detecting actual threats. Recent years have seen some improvement in this situation, although it has not been as dramatic as many had hoped.

There is one video analytics technology, however, that stands out over the others for its reliability and accuracy. That is video analytics based on Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR). This truly is a smarter video security solution, because it has two distinct advantages over other types of analytics.

First, license plates are comparatively easy for a computer to detect, especially when the ALPR solution is based on cutting-edge object recognition algorithms, as is the case with the latest and best technology on the market.

Second, most people drive. This fact is supported by a famous 2012 statistic from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which states that 70% of serious crime in the United States is related to a motor vehicle.

It is also supported by common sense; it is rare to read a story about a violent crime or terrorist attack in which the perpetrator did not use a motor vehicle to get to, or away from, the scene of the crime. In many cases, the vehicle even becomes the weapon in the attack.

Additionally, license plates are extremely difficult to fake. One may reasonably point out that that doesn’t stop the perpetrator from stealing and swapping out a plate to prevent detection; however, even that need not be a concern with the right ALPR solution. The best object-based ALPR technology can determine the make of the vehicle and discern whether the plate attached to it belongs there by checking against appropriate databases.

The Rise of Citywide Surveillance

As mentioned earlier, the past several years have seen an increasing proliferation of video surveillance technology, among public and private entities alike. Among the most notable are the rise of what are often called Real-Time Crime Centers (RTCCs).

These centers centrally control networks of surveillance cameras strategically placed throughout their cities, monitoring incoming data and relaying it to law enforcement as needed. Often, as in the case of St. Louis’ RTCC, these networks include ALPR cameras, which ostensibly enable the centers to detect suspect vehicles and track their movements through the city.

Usually, these centers make use of “old-school” ALPR technology, which is dependent upon cameras specially designed for the purpose, cameras which are considerably more expensive than simple surveillance cameras.

The added cost of these cameras tends to mean that a relatively small number of them are deployed, severely limiting the ability of ALPR to find and follow persons of interest.

Recent years, however, have seen the advent of a “new school” in ALPR that doesn’t require specialized cameras; rather, this software-only technology can perform license plate captures using any of the cameras in the surveillance network while still allowing them to perform their regular monitor-and-record function. This allows for the detection and tracking capabilities of ALPR to be truly maximized, as any or all of the cameras in the system can be capturing license plates at all times.

(Learn why ALPR and ALPR-based video analytics are needed now more than ever…and why PlateSmart’s ALPR solutions are the best choice for your needs! Courtesy of PlateSmart and YouTube)

Beyond Law Enforcement

The flexibility and affordability of new-school ALPR solutions is enabling the use of the technology to expand beyond law enforcement into other sectors such as education, health care, repossession and recovery, retail, and many others.

All of these areas of endeavor have vital security and/or intelligence-gathering needs for which ALPR-based video analytics can be a great help. For the purposes of this piece, however, we will examine the first two; namely, education and healthcare.

Most would agree that school campuses and medical facilities are some of our most important and, at the same time, most vulnerable institutions. In addition, their physical security needs often mirror those of cities. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that so many of these facilities are discovering the protective power of ALPR.

As with their city counterparts, educational and medical institutions with ALPR-based video analytics as part of their security infrastructure have license plate scan-and-check and vehicle movement pattern recognition as basic tools. This is ideal for perimeter security and for intelligence as to who enters and leaves the campus or facility and when—what is often referred to as “situational awareness.”

For a school, this means ensuring that violent and/or sex offenders do not drive onto the campus without security personnel or police knowing about it. For a medical facility, it means helping to keep out criminals or terrorists that might do serious harm to patients and/or staff.

But this is not the only advantage ALPR provides.

Instead of simply monitoring who is accessing a property, ALPR-based video analytics can be used to actually control it. Whereas many facilities control access by requiring the entrant to show or scan an ID badge or display a decal on their vehicle, ALPR technology makes it possible to base access solely on license plates.

This type of access control automatically keeps accurate track of entries and exits and requires a minimum of human intervention, thus saving both time and money in addition to making the process more foolproof. On campus, it can help ensure that students, staff, and visitors park in their assigned lots. At a medical facility, it can help to guarantee that doctors, visitors, and patients park where they should. In both cases, it can also keep lot counts and send out alerts if lots are at or nearing capacity.

Three Cases Solved by Counter-Terrorism ALPR

ALPR has proven itself over and over again as a premier technology for saving lives and combating crime and terror. Following are summaries of three notable criminal cases where the technology was the key to finding the perpetrators or cementing evidence against them.

Roanoke, Virginia, August 2015

One recent and highly-publicized case in which ALPR played a key role was that of the “Virginia On-Air Shooter,” a man by the name of Vester Lee Flanagan. Flanagan, you may recall, was a local TV news reporter who shot and killed two of his colleagues as they were conducting an interview. The station’s camera as well as Flanagan’s own camera phone captured the crime as it happened. Flanagan then fled the scene in his vehicle.

It was only a few hours later that Flanagan’s car was spotted by a Virginia State Trooper’s mobile ALPR system. The trooper radioed for backup and pursued him. When she and her fellow troopers finally stopped Flanagan, they found him suffering from a self-inflicted gunshot wound that would kill him a mere two hours later.

Georgetown, South Carolina, May 2011

Police were able to apprehend murder suspect William Constance, who allegedly stabbed his wife 25 times as the result of an argument. When the victim, Margaret Constance, was found dead at her home, police also discovered that her vehicle was missing and promptly entered the license plate number into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).

It wasn’t long before a mobile ALPR unit captured the license plate. It instantly compared the number to NCIC and returned a hit. Police stopped the vehicle and, finding Mr. Constance at the wheel, took him into custody.

Glasgow, Scotland, June 2007

ALPR was originally invented in the United Kingdom, and has been used there for many years as an effective traffic management, anti-crime, and counter-terrorism tool. One notable UK case involving the technology is the Glasgow International Airport attack on June 30, 2007. In this incident, a vehicle filled with propane canisters was driven into the front of the airport’s terminal, whose entrance is a set of glass doors, and set on fire. The vehicle was stopped from entering the terminal itself by security bollards outside the doors.

A total of eight people were arrested as part of the conspiracy to carry out this attack, two of which were identified by ALPR (called Automatic Number Plate Recognition, or ANPR, in Britain) cameras on England’s M6 Motorway.

The Glasgow International attack is interesting not only for how ALPR helped in apprehending the terrorists, but also for what it could have done had new-school technology been available at the time.

Had the most advanced of today’s ALPR technology been deployed as part of the surveillance system at Glasgow International, perimeter-mounted cameras might have captured the vehicle and sent an alert before it got anywhere near the front entrance.

Furthermore, it is likely that this vehicle had been driven through the location multiple times in previous days or weeks; attacks like this require a great deal of planning. ALPR-based video analytics could have detected this pattern and alerted security personnel to be on the lookout for the vehicle. In either of these scenarios, the attack, which resulted in multiple injuries, could have been prevented altogether.

Maintaining Privacy

Much has been made in the popular press about the supposed risks to personal privacy posed by ALPR. Claims of such risks center primarily on the ability of ALPR technology to store vast databases of license plate captures, which, the argument goes, grants the authorities the ability to track the locations of every motorist on the road going back days, weeks, months, or even years.

The ACLU and others contend that such an ability makes innocent motorists vulnerable to blackmail or oppression based on their personal habits, what churches they attend, or what political rallies they participate in.

However, such groups, whose agendas always seem to skew disproportionately against law enforcement, never seem to consider the logic of their position on this issue.

Even if one ignores the fact that license plates have been repeatedly ruled by U.S. courts to be public information and therefore not subject to Fourth Amendment protections, there is a practicality to the enterprise that is largely forgotten.

Yes, it is absolutely true that ALPR is capable of storing the massive amounts of capture data that these groups fear. But the idea that the police have the time or the manpower to go through this voluminous amount of data just looking for someone to target on moral, religious, or political grounds is absurd on its face. It reeks of the kind of paranoia for which so-called civil rights organizations are infamous, and it doesn’t reflect reality in the slightest.

Exaggerated fears notwithstanding, there are some best practices, if you will, that responsible users of ALPR should employ. Such practices not only help to ensure that personal privacy rights are not being violated, but also go a long way toward enhancing the public’s perception that everything necessary in that regard is being done.

First and foremost, it is imperative that all ALPR users, whether public or private, know their state statutes in regard to the technology. Simply put, U.S. states vary widely in how they regulate ALPR. Some, such as New Hampshire, have effectively banned the technology altogether, whereas others, such as Florida, have no real restrictions on its use at all.

Other states fall somewhere in between, delineating the purposes for which it can be used and how long capture data can be stored before it must be deleted. The information is readily available online and it is highly recommended that those who use or are considering using ALPR study it carefully.

Second, know and use the built-in security features of your ALPR solution. These, too, can vary. The best available technology will provide you not only with state-of-the-art data security measures, but also built-in data retention features allowing the user to schedule data for automatic deletion after a specified period of time.

In the near future, other security features will be available, such as a comprehensive audit trail that keeps detailed records of all data queries made to the system. Additionally, if you use a network of fixed-location cameras, make sure that they are hack-proof.

Finally, always verify your hits. New-school ALPR technology is very accurate and getting better all the time, but no technology, no matter how sophisticated, is perfect. When your system hits on a plate, take a few extra seconds to verify that it has read the plate correctly and is therefore returning accurate information. Don’t put yourself or your agency in the position of stopping and possibly arresting an innocent person due solely to a computer error.

ALPR is Here to Stay

Unfortunately, the dangers of crime and terrorism aren’t going away anytime soon. In fact, they are likely to get worse before they get better. Going forward, we are going to need the best technological tools available to help stem this tide and keep our nation safe. ALPR is a critical weapon in this war. It is imperative that we deploy it wherever possible to maximize its potential and give our law enforcement and Homeland Security officers the help they need.

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