New ALPR Vulnerabilities Prove Mass Surveillance Is a Public Safety Threat

Deeplinks 2024-06-18


Government officials across the U.S. frequently promote the supposed, and often anecdotal, public safety benefits of automated license plate readers (ALPRs), but rarely do they examine how this very same technology poses risks to public safety that may outweigh the crimes they are attempting to address in the first place. When law enforcement uses ALPRs to document the comings and goings of every driver on the road, regardless of a nexus to a crime, it results in gargantuan databases of sensitive information, and few agencies are equipped, staffed, or trained to harden their systems against quickly evolving cybersecurity threats.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), a component of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, released an advisory last week that should be a wake up call to the thousands of local government agencies around the country that use ALPRs to surveil the travel patterns of their residents by scanning their license plates and "fingerprinting" their vehicles. The bulletin outlines seven vulnerabilities in Motorola Solutions' Vigilant ALPRs, including missing encryption and insufficiently protected credentials.

To give a sense of the scale of the data collected with ALPRs, EFF found that just 80 agencies in California using primarily Vigilant technology, collected more than 1.6 billion license plate scans (CSV) in 2022. This data can be used to track people in real time, identify their "pattern of life," and even identify their relations and associates. An EFF analysis from 2021 found that 99.9% of this data is unrelated to any public safety interest when it's collected. If accessed by malicious parties, the information could be used to harass, stalk, or even extort innocent people.

Unlike location data a person shares with, say, GPS-based navigation app Waze, ALPRs collect and store this information without consent and there is very little a person can do to have this information purged from these systems. And while a person can turn off their phone if they are engaging in a sensitive activity, such as visiting a reproductive health facility or attending a protest, tampering with your license plate is a crime in many jurisdictions. Because drivers don't have control over ALPR data, the onus for protecting the data lies with the police and sheriffs who operate the surveillance and the vendors that provide the technology.

It's a general tenet of cybersecurity that you should not collect and retain more personal data than you are capable of protecting. Perhaps ironically, a Motorola Solutions cybersecurity specialist wrote an article in Police Chief magazine this month that  public safety agencies "are often challenged when it comes to recruiting and retaining experienced cybersecurity personnel," even though "the potential for harm from external factors is substantial." 

That partially explains why, more than 125 law enforcement agencies reported a data breach or cyberattacks between 2012 and 2020, according to research by former EFF intern Madison Vialpando. The Motorola Solutions article claims that ransomware attacks "targeting U.S. public safety organizations increased by 142 percent" in 2023.

Yet, the temptation to "collect it all" continues to overshadow the responsibility to "protect it all." What makes the latest CISA disclosure even more outrageous is it is at least the third time in the last decade that major security vulnerabilities have been found in ALPRs.

In 2015, building off the previous works of University of Arizona researchers, EFF published an investigation that found more than 100 ALPR cameras in Louisiana, California and Florida were connected unsecured to the internet, many with publicly accessible websites that anyone could use to manipulate the controls of the cameras or siphon off data. Just by visiting a URL, a malicious actor, without any specialized knowledge, could view live feeds of the cameras, including one that could be used to spy on college students at the University of Southern California. Some of the agencies involved fixed the problem after being alerted about that problem. However, 3M, which had recently bought the ALPR manufacturer PIPS Technology (which h


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Dave Maass, Cooper Quintin

Date tagged:

06/18/2024, 17:11

Date published:

06/18/2024, 17:07