Big Brother And Others Are Watching Your Car

We are all (hopefully) aware that we can be watched while we’re online. Our clicks are all trackable to some extent, whether it’s our country’s government or an advertiser. What isn’t as obvious, though, is that it’s just as easy to track our movements in real life. [Saulius] was able to prove this concept by using optical character recognition to track the license plate numbers of passing cars half a kilometer away.

To achieve such long distances (and still have clear and reliable data to work with) [Saulius] paired a 70-300 mm telephoto lens with a compact USB camera. All of the gear was set up on an overpass and the camera was aimed at cars coming around a corner of a highway. As soon as the cars enter the frame, the USB camera feeds the information to a laptop running openALPR which is able to process and record license plate data.

The build is pretty impressive, but [Saulius] notes that it isn’t the ideal setup for processing a large amount of information at once because of the demands made on the laptop. With this equipment, monitoring a parking lot would be a more feasible situation. Still, with even this level of capability available to anyone with the cash, imagine what someone could do with the resources of a national government. They might even have long distance laser night vision!

63 thoughts on “Big Brother And Others Are Watching Your Car

  1. Steve Jobs’ car was always recognizable in the Apple parking lot. It was the luxury sedan without a license plate on it (often parked in a handicapped spot, I have heard). He gamed the CVC, which states that a car must have its license plates affixed within 6 months of its first purchase. He would lease the cars for 6 months and then get a new one.

    It’s moot for Steve now, of course, but given the move towards all electronic tolling here in the Bay Area, the pressure is mounting for Sacramento to close this loophole – probably by coming up with a system for dealers to assign and affix serialized temporary plates.

    1. We’ve had instant temporary plates for years in Louisiana. You get the cardboard plate with the car at the dealer or, if you buy privately, the title transfer outfit. You cannot drive the carwithout it, full stop. Your real plate arrives about a month later. You do occasionally see people waving the “license applied for” flag, but here that dog don’t hunt; it’s like waving an “I don’t have insurance” flag and a sure pull-over.

  2. With all the hype & kerfuffle over redlight cameras and speed traps I think most people are at least tacitly aware that they are being watched. It’s just like meta-data surveillance, they simply don’t see it as a serious threat to privacy.

    1. I think you are incorrect. Yes, people are tacitly aware that surveillance exists. I don’t think they are aware of the level of automation and granularity at which individuals can be tracked.

      I also disagree when you say “…as a serious threat to privacy”. I think there is outrage-fatigue. There are so many things to be outraged about that individuals can’t possibly care to the level they’d like. That doesn’t mean that people don’t consider privacy issues serious, just that they don’t have the capacity to be active on all the fronts at the same time.

      How do we fix this? I don’t know. But I would like to point you to Cory Doctorow’s talk at HOPE — where he advocates for hope. Sounds cheesy, but it struck a chord with me.

      1. I don’t see how advances in the level of available automation have an effect on expectations of privacy in a public place.

        Before automatic license plate readers: License plates of cars were visible on the road.

        After license plate readers: License plates of cars are still visible on the road.

        The ability to act on publicly available data has changed. The privacy of the data has not.

        1. But the privacy of their travels has.
          Imagine you’re a recovering addict, politician, religious leader, psychiatrist, or political activist. All of your movements are on record forever, from the minute they switch on the system. It’s not hard to figure out if someone goes to a recovery meeting on the same day every week, or if an activist meets with gang members to try to reform them. The success of these activities are now threatened.

          It’s not the data that is troubling, it’s the scale & ease that it can be referenced. If someone follows you around all day noting your habits it’s stalking, but if an automated data base does it you’re Ok with it?
          If the police want to track a persons movement they used to be required to get a warrant. They couldn’t just grab the keys to the panel van, a DSLR and go to town. Now all they need is to query a database (ideally after getting a warrant). That may or not be very well secured.

          License plates & street names are analogue metadata.

          1. That comment you make…
            “If someone follows you around all day noting your habits it’s stalking, but if an automated data base does it you’re Ok with it?”
            raises a really interesting point, which no-one seemed to be disturbed about.
            Both should be placed into the same basket, and be illegal. At least if someone follows you, you might notice. If you are tracked by some automated system, you don’t know if you’re the target or the guy next to you.
            Then again, I shouldn’t imply ‘either’ person is being tracked… because it’s actually both of you!

        2. Taking your analogy:
          before license plate readers: you were passing bridge a toll bridge and paid 10 cents to mr Joe Smith.
          after license plate readers: you were passing a toll bridge and paid automatically, because a license plate reader logged your plate. Also, the tax department can see that you’re using your company car to go to a Disney park using that toll bridge, flagging you for possible tax fraud.

        3. People can look into your house windows from the street, but that probably doesn’t bother you since it doesn’t happen very often. But what if the government installed cameras that could look in everyone’s windows all the time and record everything?

          There are many types of surveillance that are technically legal not because they’re ok, but because the weren’t practical in the past, so we didn’t worry about it.

      2. I’ll readily agree that people may not be aware, or fully appreciate the granularity with which it is possible to track people. That’s mainly what I meant by my quip on ‘the serious threat to privacy’, I again, don’t think people appreciate the ease that knowing their location or metadata can be used to learn more about them than they may know about themselves.
        I disagree with the outrage-fatigue theory for these scenarios. People know they are being watched & understand data is being collected, but they don’t understand they should be outraged.

  3. There are companies that resell Cell Phone data collected by your cell phone company, to local (and not so local) governments that allow them to accurately track people within their study areas. This is an increasingly used data source in local planning efforts, and is perfectly able to track individuals for the people who collected and presumably are able to distribute the original data.

    It is important to understand that this data is being collected and sold by private companies, not governments, and that these companies are able to use this data to establish detailed travel patterns for you. What they sell to local governments has been stripped of ‘identifying’ information, but that information is in the original collection since it is based upon your cell phone number and the companies records they have for that account.

  4. In the UK, you are tracked pretty much everywhere you go by these already ( Then there are the average speed cameras aka ‘yellow vultures’ that make sure you don’t speed over a long section of road by seeing how long you took to travel between them. And finally for parking lots we have these people who issue sizeable penalties by post for overstays in what are typically otherwise free shoppers parking – the government provide them with access to their database of registered vehicle owners to do so. With a little more simple information like colour or make of car, you can even check the tax, insurance and now the MOT (annual safety check) status too.

  5. I’ve often thought about how Big Brother could track everyone if they did this with every available traffic/security camera they had access to. The amount of data to store per scanned location would be trivial, (as compared to actually storing the video files). Your comings and goings could be stored forever. Years later they could track where you were, where you went and where to came from for any date and time. Pretty 1984 to me.

    1. Heck, sometimes the scumbags bill you even if it ???????????????? catch the transponder:

      Here’s the hack the world really needs: a way to spoof license plates that cannot be easily detected. Sure, it would be used by criminals as well as innocents trying to protect themselves from government tyranny, but the same can be said for guns (and personally, I’m more comfortable with the license hack). So, HaDites, let’s get on it!

        1. Hirudinea – I think they are modified so traffic can be better visible at night (with help from IR light sources). I’ve heard of “people” using the IR flashers to spot them with traffic cams.But the flashers are so powerful they could overcome the IR filter in front of the CCD. You have to use Jumbo IR LEDs. Some even flash at a preset rate I think. XMAS lights with film negatives are just not powerful enough to be seen with NV goggles and stuff.

          $2.49 (USD) but does not flash!

  6. One local yokel (local municipal police dept) in USA recently tried this method of LP monitoring looking for scoff laws in his town. Needless to say the mayor opened Pandora’s box and hit the mother-lode of scoff lawing! But in moving forward, he had no law enforcement personnel to handle the in huge influx of people driving with suspended plates, swapped plates, back taxes, unpaid traffic violations, etc. So he decided to petition his state government and then the US Federal govt for man power or funding. Both of which didn’t have the time nor desire to help clean up something he should have never illuminated and just left alone. He felt it was a serious issue for the town and it’s revenue stream. But sometimes it’s better to leave well enough alone.

    Big brother may in fact be watching but to what end? Did they learn anything actionable? Sometimes information overload is not a good thing. Something I think the NSA is learning from the information firehouse they are drinking from today. They will start OUT SOURCING intel analysts to play catch up. Imagine that, private industry analyzing your private details. D’oh! *face palms* too late!

    1. Just a side note. Here in Connecticut, some people have resorted to putting a special tinted Mylar or plastic over their license plates. That does not block the LEOs from actually seeing your plates with their naked eyes, but blocks IR light from reflecting back the plates numbers to a digital IR camera. All the camera sees is a black plate. It is supposedly illegal to do that but it is a GRAY area of the law. Your no really obscuring the plate per se.

      Here’s a neat trick for HaD hackers: Put some jumbo IR LEDS around your L.P. like a decoration. Attach it to your 12VDC wires to the existing L.P. lamp. The plate is NOT partially obscured at all as is the case with the Mylar above. However, the IR light blinds the camera from seeing anything in the L.P. area. It should even affect ANY kind of digital camera today. It would make for a great anti-paparazzi eye-glasses too with just two jumbo IR LEDS on both sides at the temples.

      Unfortunately, that very method is a popular Big Brother car tailing technique today. He puts a IR flashing beacon under your bumper(s) (or elsewhere) and can follow you with a very LOOSE tail (no due diligence following). He can find you later in a crowd of other cars or one of his partners can restart the tail at will. You will stand out like a sore thumb in the IR world of invisible light. Even low-res traffic cams could follow you.

      1. So, basically, we need random people installing random flashing IR LEDs on their car. At a certain level, it will saturate the ability of followers to sort out who’s who.

        1. Rando Calrisian – Yes at first that would work. However, DARPA would then come up with PCM modulated flashers that have a digital signature to differentiate the target from background noise. You aim the reader at different flashers until the screen shows the target’s digital code. Then they say “Gotcha!”.

          Funny story: you know those traffic light expediters that use modulated IR light flashers to make the lights go green for fire engines and police? Someone got VERY smart and said why not make the flashers make all lights go RED instead? It worked. Now everyone has to stop while the emergency vehicle uses his emergency siren and lights to go through the intersection. How the hacker got the secret code to make them go green in the early days is a mystery to me.

          1. It shouldn’t be a mystery – all the details are spelled out in 3M patents. 14.035 Hz, IIRC.

            Later versions of the spec doubled the rate, and used the original strobe as a clock, embedding data ID bits in between . Clever way to preserve backwards compatibility.

          2. oasisbob – But the trick is what is the RESULT not the hardware hack into the Expediter. You may be able to hack the traffic light but you’ll only result in turning all lights RED at that intersection. Kinda’ defeats the purpose of hacking a traffic light.

        1. PointyOintment – “Wrong”???
          I read all of your hyperlinks. None of them speak of the tinted plastic (or Mylar) you have to purchase from a retailer that does block your plates from LEO’s with special ALPR looking for tax scoff laws. In New Haven CT they do that frequently so they can put wheel-boots on your tires. The Mylar thwarts it. It’s special. It’s not a DIY trick. We don’t have speed cameras in CT. The law has not been passed yet. So I don’t know if it will work on them when they come out.

          Your anti-paparazzi glasses HaD link says they DO work. The posters are wrong as if you use two JUMBO IR LED it should wash out ANY digital camera CCD even with a IR filter. Why? Because the IR LEDs are very powerful. Your face is just not visible as the LEDs just wash out the image of your face. Here is a working demo:

    2. There are plenty of people in other parts of the world who would get off on sticking it to comfortable Americans. Heck, they might even be able to get the processing crowdsourced for free (or at least, for very small micropayments).

      1. Rodney McKay – None of the “crowdsourcers” would be Americans! We are too “comfortable” not getting caught by law makers simply trying to increase their revenue streams. Some of our LEOs are actually out to make quotas on traffic fines to help their job performance appraisals or the city’s coffers. The motive to enforce the law should be just that: THE LAW not a money making scheme. Then again we Americans also need to obey the law better like the Canadians! (LOL)

        1. I think I’ll just stay at home for the rest of my life and take care of everything online or by mail. Watch what happens when those tyrants try invading my castle!

          I recall reading that something like 95% of arrests in Japan result in convictions. That ???????????????????? be scary, or it could just mean that Japanese law enforcement is more honest. They’re certainly more polite.

  7. “They might even have long distance laser night vision!”

    Sounds like a good HaD hack. I once saw a commercial Chinese night-vision application that used a IR digital camera attached to a high powered tscope. But how do you illuminate the target from so far away? An IR floodlamp gets too darn hot. Even with LED’s. And what a IR detector target for bad guys to see too. Their idea was to use a powerful IR laser with it’s beam slightly diverged. But if you are looking at something at extreme distance, the laser beam will diverge slightly anyway. And those IR NV goggles usually have a tell-tale visible greenish glow don’t they? I think the milspec version has a black nylon mesh over the goggles to hold that down. I’m not sure.

  8. The lack of skill required for the most intrusive hacks is amazing. This is a 5 minute job, and with a bit more money you can simply buy an off-the-shelf camera that does this, and is also waterproof!
    That’s not too take anything away from this demonstration though. This tech has been around for more than a few years now.

  9. Wait till the new police sirens and Flashers get put on the police cars less then 2 years from now. They will be able to track up to 30 – 40 people and cars at once. And when they pick up a offender it will notify the officer to them.
    I think it will be a over load to the police and our legal system.

    This was in the talk from Hackaday last month on security. Realy realy cool and long.
    I think everyone and there grand mother should watch it.

    1. Standard in the uk most all trafic police cars have ANPR cameras which will flag up cars with no tax/mot/insurance or warrants out on named keepers as well as general markers on the cars of suspected bad people lol

  10. Just a quick sanity check…remember that once you leave the door to your house that all expectation of privacy drops to ZERO. There is nothing in the Constitution that guarantees your privacy, just that you are “protected” from illegal search and seizure.

    1. But if someone follows you from your front door around all day and back to your house, its stalking. 24/7 Police surveillance and tails still requires a warrant.

      Your appreciation of the implications is lacking.

      1. Leithoa – Warrants are usually only needed if you are trying to prosecute the target in court of law. However, if you are just collecting HUMINT (human intelligence) I don’t think they need a warrant. Try and prove they are following you. You know a Certain Interesting Actor is not allowed to do that kind of stuff in USA.

        I’ve seen some really clever tradecraft that deserves mention: Hire a semi 18-wheeler from a moving company and set up surveillance from across the street in a office building parking lot or commuter lot. Can stay there for days without attracting notice. They use the truck’s cab forward tinted skylight to aim the camera at you. And all kinds of RF antennas can be pointed at you from inside the trailer (plastic or canvas side). The landowner doesn’t question it as he could be doing moving at the office building of the parking lot. Or they just pay him off or give him a NSL to dummy-up.

        Then there’s a really clever method: a wrecker holds the tracking car on the hook as if he’s broken down. The wrecker follows you and then when needed it let’s him off the hook and the supposedly broken car continues the tail. I thought that was retarded at first but I guess it has merit.

        Here’s a really clever method:


    2. That kind of attitude is exactly what got us into this mess.
      People need to stand up and say no to this surveillance state garbage because it is wrong and every time it happened nothing good came of it.

  11. Easy DIY IR beacon:

    1. 9 volt battery
    2. Blinking Christmas tree bulb
    3. IR pass filter*
    4. Black duct tape (or whatever works for you but I find electrical tape adhesive gets soft and fails when heated)

    * the IR pass filter is easily made by buying a roll of 35mm film and exposing the entire roll. Tell them not to make prints because you only want the negatives. When you pick up the negatives you’ll see that you now have black (very dark) film. Two layers of this should be fine.

    Assembly: 1. Take the 9 volt batt and tape one side of your IR pass filter to one side of the battery, then run the filter over the top of the battery to make a little dome window which you will tape to the other side of the battery in a minute.

    2. Take the blinking xmas bulb and connect the leads (use your favorite method; solder, tape etc.) to the terminals of the 9 volt battery (+ or – makes no diff- just one lead to one terminal and the other lead to the other terminal), If you like, you can install a little switch to turn it on and off.

    3. Tape the other side of the filter to the other side of the battery, making the filter cover the blinking light. You now have a hole on each side of the filter that you have to block up so the device doesn’t emit (much) visible light. You can do this by first running some tape along both edges of the filter (covering the holes in the film) and then pinching the two sides of tape together. Just keep slapping tape on there until you can’t see any light (except for the faint glow which may come through the filter but you can just add another layer of filter if you need absolutely no visible light. but it will also diminish the IR output a bit more for every layer of filter.)

    I think I got everything covered but if you have problems let me know. It should blink incredibly brightly for at least an hour but I don’t know how long it continues to blink after that.

    ….and you may want to make sure the bulb doesn’t touch the film or it might melt it.

    There are better ways, but I don’t know of any cheaper way to do this. If you do, then share :)

    1. Unless you have 35mm film laying around an M34-1 flasher chip and an IR LED will be cheaper. In single quantities they can both be had for under a dollar while film goes for ~$3
      If you have 555’s laying around that’s another option.

    2. Better yet get some IR laser out of a CD burner and use the spot projector optics out of a kinect ,real sense camera,or those laser Christmas lights to split the output into many low power beams.
      Make sure to test each sub beam and make sure it is under 5mw so you don’t harm anyones eyes.
      Or just use a couple of laser line generators and out CD players diodes in them.

  12. Anyone with a computer, a gps security tracking on their car or smart phone phone, a EZ pass or other toll collecting transponder on their car should not even reply. You have already made yourself available 24/7 to tracking.

    1. Using that logic, no one with a telephone can complain when Ma Bell or Alphabet Soup tap your phone line. No one who uses paper mail can complain when the mail carrier or a private courier open their packages. No one who uses email can get mad when their ISP or mail server scans their correspondence.

      Using these tools to simplify our lives does open us to inherent risk that we are responsible for minimizing but it does not give carte blanche to the operating entity to peer into our private lives despite what any hold EULA states.
      There are things that no contract can demand and unlimited, unfettered access to metadata, by default, should be one of them.

    2. How about facial tracking software? I saw a baseball sports KIOSK in a Providence RI Mall for the Boston Red Sox. They wanted your sports vote on something. You had to stand still to allow the kiosk to capture your posed photo image. Imagine if that actually went SOMEWHERE else? He had a Israeli company who made software like this in CT but they now since have moved to Canada. Cameras are ubiquitous now. U.K. has them everywhere! Cameras are in ATMs, street corners, over the lentils of doors to open the door automatically (Stanley Works Inc in CT), people’s smartphones cameras can be accessed, and now even some store mannequins have cameras in the eye sockets. Hidden cameras can be mounted in clocks, flood lamps, loudspeakers, etc. If your paranoid wear the anti-paparazzi IR glasses mention in this thread somewhere. Or buy Halloween scares this October to change the form of your face slightly. But don’t be a bad-guy and you don’t have to worry?

  13. Automation? Prague – Czech Republic has it. We don’t have functional e-government (who needs it right?) but traffic violations? Fully automated. All over the city speeding cams (not just ordinary when you can slow down before the camera, we have so called “section speed” cameras – really effective system i must say ), red light cams, specially design speed limits so they can catch more people and made them pay (like 30 km/h limit on high slope road, so you need to constantly use breaks and checking speedometer). If violation is detected, you will get automatically generated letter (paper one of course, that kind for which you need to visit post office to collect it) to pay something like 30USD. If you pay, the municipality will “forget” your violation. If you don’t pay, another automatically generated letter will come, this time with more harsh formulation that you have couple more weeks to pay, otherwise much harder fines will be set + special points (2 for speeding – if you get 12, you loose driving license for one year – point system is automated as well). If you don’t pay? They will pass it to bailiffs and it can get pretty nasty. At least this part of process is not automated.
    What people do here? Nothing, they got used to it. Government? “If you obey the rules, you have no problem.”

  14. In the US. You are SUPPOSED to be “innocent until proven guilty” and in order to find you guilty their has to be evidence, and in order to collect that evidence and build a case against you, there has to be probable cause. Being out in public and privacy have shit to do with it. If you are not doing anything blatantly obvious against the law in plain view, there is no probable cause to bother you or obtain a warrant – therefore there is no case. What they are trying to do is use metadata to build these cases against you. Like if you drive through an area known for prostitution or drug trade. So fucking what? Just because you drive through an area, it does not mean you are involved in either or, and those things would not be enough to warrant probable cause on its own .

    They will use the whole “if you have nothing to hide argument” – NO – the constitution and bill of rights state very plainly that I AM INNOCENT so you have zero reason to harass me in the first place until the trip lines are crossed that offer probable cause. Driving around anywhere, unless it is a prohibited area and you are trespassing doesn’t mean shit.

    If you have probable cause of a crime and a warrant issued by a judge – track the fuck away. But other than that, leave me the piss hell alone.

    This “collect data on everyone until we can find something shady” is bullshit, its not about privacy at all, its about trashing the constitution and the bill of rights to the point they no longer offer the protections we were given by the founding fathers.

    Zero tolerance law enforcement is not a good thing any way you slice it. It reeks of totalitarianism, but mostly a governmental money grab and that is not what this nation was supposed to be founded on.

    1. I agree with you 100% WDWE*, in theory. However, with the onset of the PATRIOT ACT (x) and other undocumented intelligence community initiatives, BIG BROTHER has presumptuously taken on heightened roles in domestic surveillance (IMO that is). For example, let’s say a certain US agency just happens to be monitoring a local Muslim mosque in USA (just on general principles) in your community. Maybe they are doing it based on some “chatter” intercepts, or on some credible confidential informant. Or maybe the “metadata” has way too many coincidences in it.

      HYPOTHETICAL SCENARIO: Then here comes ol’ innocent WDWE. So what? Let’s say WDWE is a vendor or sub-contractor that got called or made an appointment to go to the mosque in question to fix the phones, pipes, building, lights, carpentry, computer specialist – WHATEVER. Existentially you look just like any of the mosque members and your vehicle is generally unmarked (no magnetic signs NOTHING). Nothing you do outside the building going in screams I’M ONLY A INNOCENT VISITOR CONTRACTOR I’M NOT A MEMBER!

      There happens to be a hotel/motel next door. There is a surveillance team watching the mosque.They aren’t generally following anybody but you are now a “new face” on their radar. They just can’t just let you go into the wind when your done with the mosque. They have to tail you for a while to figure out your back-story. Then they discover that you are in fact a “throw away” (fish metaphor). They never tail you again, at least based on that scenario. They make a note in their private database that you are not a HV target – maybe not even a small one either.

      * key: “WDWE” means “When did writer = engineer” namely YOU

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.