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 has since been sold to Neology), claimed zero responsibility for the problem, saying instead that it was the agencies' responsibility to manage the devices' cybersecurity. "The security features are clearly explained in our packaging," they wrote. Four years later, TechCrunch found that the problem still persisted.

In 2019, Customs & Border Protections' vendor providing ALPR technology for Border Patrol checkpoints was breached, with hackers gaining access to 105,000 license plate images, as well as more than 184,000 images of travelers from a face recognition pilot program. Some of those images made it onto the dark web, according to reporting by journalist Joseph Cox.

If there's one positive thing we can say about the latest Vigilant vulnerability disclosures, it's that for once a government agency identified and reported the vulnerabilities before they could do damage. The initial discovery was made by the Michigan State Police Michigan Cyber Command Center, which passed the information onto CISA, which then worked with Motorola Solutions to address the problems.

The Michigan Cyber Command center found a total of seven vulnerabilities in Vigilant devices; two of which were medium severity and 5 of which were high severity vulnerabilities.

One of the most severe vulnerabilities (given a score of 8.6 out of 10,) was that every camera sold by Motorola had a wifi network turned on by default that used the same hardcoded password as every other camera, meaning that if someone was able to find the password to connect to one camera they could connect to any other camera as long as they were near it.

Someone with physical access to the camera could also easily install a backdoor, which would allow them access to the camera even if the wifi was turned off. An attacker could even log into the system locally using a default username and password. Once they connected to that camera they would be able to see live video and control the camera, even disable it. Or they could view historic recordings of license plate data stored without any kind of encryption. They would also see logs containing authentication information which could be used to connect to a back-end server where more information is stored. Motorola claims that they have mitigated all of these vulnerabilities.

When vulnerabilities are found, it's not enough for them be patched: They must be used as a stark warnings for policy makers and the courts. Following EFF's report in 2015, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal spiked a statewide ALPR program, writing in his veto message:

Camera programs such as these that make private information readily available beyond the scope of law enforcement, pose a fundamental risk to personal privacy and create large pools of information belonging to law abiding citizens that unfortunately can be extremely vulnerable to theft or misuse.

In May, a Norfolk Circuit Court Judge reached the same conclusion, writing in an order suppressing the data collected by ALPRs in a criminal case:

The Court cannot ignore the possibility of a potential hacking incident either. For example, a team of computer scientists at the University of Arizona was able to find vulnerable ALPR cameras in Washington, California, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. (Italics added for emphasis.) … The citizens of Norfolk may be concerned to learn the extent to which the Norfolk Police Department is tracking and maintaining a database of their every movement for 30 days. The Defendant argues “what we have is a dragnet over the entire city” retained for a month and the Court agrees.

But a data breach isn't the only way that ALPR data can be leaked or abused. In 2022, an officer in the Kechi (Kansas) Police Department accessed ALPR data shared with his department by the Wichita Police Department to stalk his wife. Meanwhile, recently the Orrville (Ohio) Police Department released a driver's raw ALPR scans to a total stranger in response to a public records request, 404 Media reported.

Public safety agencies must resist the allure of marketing materials promising surveillance omniscience, and instead collect only the data they need for actual criminal investigations. They must never store more data than they adequately protect within their limited resources–or they must keep the public safe from data breaches by not collecting the data at all.

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