Automatic license plate readers capture thousands of vehicle IDs each minute, allowing law enforcement and private businesses to track drivers with or without their explicit consent. Fashion-forward freedom fighters are countering the algorithms with a line of shirts, dresses, and tops covered with images of license plates.

What’s new: Security researcher and clothing designer Kate Rose unveiled her Adversarial Fashion line at the Defcon hacker convention. The garments are meant to foul automatic license plate readers by diluting their databases with noise.

How it works: Such readers typically use optical character recognition to capture lettering found in rectangular shapes they identify as license plates. But they aren’t picky about whether those rectangles are attached to a car.

  • Rose used an open source reader to optimize her designs until they had shapes, sizes, and lettering that fooled the software.
  • Each time a reader captures a plate from Rose’s clothes, it takes in a line of meaningless data.
  • With enough noise, such systems become less precise, require more human oversight, and cost more money to operate. ​
  • Rose’s Defcon deck provides a fun overview.​

Behind the news: Use of automatic license plate readers grew by 3,000 percent over the past two years, according to a February article in Quartz. Companies like OpenALPR and PlateSmart Technologies have spurred the trend by marketing their systems to casinos, hospitals, and schools.

Why it matters: ALPR technology isn’t useful only for catching scofflaws who blow through red lights. Bad actors with access to license plate tracking data can stalk an individual’s movements, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. They can create databases of people who regularly visit sensitive locations like women’s health clinics, immigration centers, and union halls.

We’re thinking: Rose’s designs aren’t likely to have a practical impact unless they become a widespread geek craze (and in that case, makers of license plate readers will respond by building in an adversarial clothing detector). Their real effect may be to spur a public conversation about the worrying proliferation of automated surveillance technology.


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