This is one story I’ve wanted to get around to for a while now and since we’re waiting for the voting to start in New Hampshire anyway we might as well go for it. In one small town on Long Island, the police have been testing out a system of cameras with license plate reading software since last year. It’s a fairly comprehensive system which captures the tag numbers of cars, stores them all, and automatically matches them against a database of known plates which are involved in criminal investigations or other violations. So how has that been working out for them? In some ways it’s a mixed bag. (Yahoo News)

When this Long Island village switched on its “ring of steel” last fall, it knew it was getting a potent policing tool. The system of 27 cameras would scan the license plate of every single vehicle that rolled into town. If a wanted criminal drove through, the system would sound an alert. If someone burglarized a house, the data could be mined to see who was on the road at the time.

Police weren’t prepared, though, for the firehose of less-valuable intelligence generated by the $750,000 system.

Since the scanners went live Nov. 2, they have been triggering an average of 700 alarms a day, mainly about cars on the road with expired or suspended registration stickers. Officers have impounded 500 vehicles. They’ve written more than 2,000 court summonses, mostly for minor violations.

Let’s just acknowledge up front that this whole concept drives libertarians crazy, but I’ve traditionally had little sympathy for those particular complaints. There’s always talk about Big Brother when technology such as this is installed, but if you are in a car and driving on the public roads, your expectation of privacy is essentially zero to start with. I can easily dream up scenarios where dark, New World Order forces could use the license plate data collected for nefarious purposes, but we’ve got to draw a line in the sand someplace. Surely transparency steps can be put in place to find out who is accessing the information, and how much can they really glean from it anyway? (Assuming you’re not doing something illegal, that is.)

The Freeport test showed some initial snags because of the volume of data they had to handle, but the results have actually been impressive once you sort out some of the glitches in how the program is administered. In just the short time it’s been online they turned up an armed man wanted for murder, recovered fifteen stolen cars, captured two men wanted in armed robberies and a number of other captures. Yes, they are probably generating more revenue off the deal by upping the number of people who are caught with minor violations, but let’s be honest… even those people are breaking the law.

Such a system isn’t without issues, though. One problem is that it’s so difficult to scale this type of system up from a small town to a major city. In a relatively tiny hamlet where you only need a handful of cameras to cover the routes into and out of town along with the major intersections, costs for both equipment and the personnel to process the data and incorporate it into prosecutions can be kept under control. (Freeport managed it with only 27 cameras.) Imagine trying that in Boston or Houston, to say nothing of L.A. or the Big Apple. The number of cameras required would be in the tens of thousands. The volume of data they generated which would require processing and evaluation would be, well… let’s just say that on an average day, the George Washington Bridge has more than a quarter million cars crossing it. The number of hits it would generate just for expired registrations could probably fill the parking lots for the Super Bowl. But in cases like that it seems like we could train the system to shunt low level violations to a less frequently monitored database and just generate alarms for the big ticket items.

Don’t the benefits of quickly capturing a car seen kidnapping a child or fleeing a murder scene outweigh any privacy concerns here? While imperfect, this might be the only way to more efficiently crack down on crime rates, particularly in heavily populated areas.