Police in the U.S. routinely use AI to track cars with little accountability to the public.

What happened: Documents obtained by Wired revealed just how intensively police in Los Angeles, California, have been using automatic license plate readers. Officials queried databases of captured plate numbers hundreds of thousands of times in 2016 alone, records show.

How it works: The Los Angeles Police Department, county sheriff, and other local agencies rely on TBird, a license plate tracking system from data-mining company Palantir.

  • Detectives can search for full or partial numbers. The system maps the locations of vehicles with matching plates, annotated with previous searches and the time each image was captured.
  • The system acts as a virtual dragnet, alerting nearby officers whenever cameras spot a flagged plate.
  • It also lists all plates that appeared in the vicinity of a crime, along with each vehicle’s color, make, and style, thanks to machine vision from Intrinsics.
  • The LAPD shares its license plate records with those of other nearby police departments as well as private cameras located in malls, universities, transit centers, and airports.

Behind the news: A 2013 survey by the U.S. Dept. of Justice found that many urban police departments use automatic license plate readers.The LAPD was among the first to do so starting in 2009.

Why it matters: License plate readers help solve serious crimes. Wired describes a case in which the LAPD used TBird to search for vehicles spotted near the place where a murdered gang member’s body was found. The plates led them to a rival gang member who eventually was convicted for the homicide.

We’re thinking: Digital tools are becoming important in fighting crime, but it shouldn’t take a reporter’s public records request to find out how police are using them. We support regulations that require public agencies to disclose their use of surveillance technology, as well as rigorous logging and auditing to prevent misuse.

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