Reality TV: Live feeds from police license plate readers posted online, claims report

This is a redacted screen grab provided by Electronic Frontier Foundation shows a camera outside a church in St. Tammany Parish in Louisiana.

This is a redacted screen grab provided by Electronic Frontier Foundation shows a camera outside a church in St. Tammany Parish in Louisiana.

It was technology, not shoe leather, that brought to justice the killer of Walter Bailey, a 49-year-old grandfather who was gunned down for $10 on a Kenner, La., street five years ago this week.

But now, automatic license plate readers -- like the one that helped crack the Bailey murder case and send his killer to prison for life — and the company that manufactures them are under fire from a tech watchdog that found more than 100 of the systems streaming live on the web, potentially compromising personal information of countless Americans.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation's study found footage from stationary cameras, which scan license plates and generate personal data on the car's registrant, was being posted online — and with no password protection. One such camera was monitoring activity at a University of Southern California frat house, while another was trained on a Florida gun shop, according to the group.

"Anyone in favor of the Second Amendment, I'm sure, could have a problem with that," Dave Maass, an EFF researcher and co-author of the report, told

"We have a problem with these large dragnets."

- Jay Stanley, ACLU

The study located the live feeds on the web and traced them back to cameras operated by law enforcement agencies around the nation, according to Maass, who said his organization was alerted to the issue earlier this year by a security specialist at the search engine Shodan.

"If you plugged certain keywords into Shodan, the site retrieved hundreds of PIPS [manufactured] camera systems connected to the Internet, often with control panels open and completely accessible through a Web browser," the report said. Maass said anyone could watch the live stream and learn information about license plate numbers. 

The cameras in the report were developed by PIPS Technology, which is now owned by 3M. A company spokeswoman issued a statement to saying it stands behind the product, but that it is up to law-enforcement agencies to employ the security features already installed in the cameras.

"These security features are clearly explained in our packaging," the statement said.

But the very fact these security measures can be bypassed or not activated is a security flaw on the part of the product, Maass claims. In most cases, the issue was corrected, but information from dozens of cameras from other agencies "may still be vulnerable in some form," according to the report.

"It is our hope that with publication of this report, all agencies responsible for PIPS cameras, wherever they are in the country, initiate comprehensive security audits of their devices," the report said.

The report is sure to add fuel to the controversy surrounding government surveillance programs — and, in particular, license plate readers.

Privacy groups for years have advocated against the use of the license plate readers, which can scan tens of thousands of plates per day, potentially reporting on the movements of countless citizens neither accused or suspected of wrongdoing. Law enforcement agencies have been hesitant to disclose where and how data from the devices is stored — and, who has access to the information, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which issued a 2013 report about the technology titled, "You Are Being Tracked."

"License plate readers would pose few civil liberties risks if they only checked plates against hot lists and these hot lists were implemented soundly," the ACLU report stated. "But these systems are configured to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time and location where all vehicles are seen—not just the data of vehicle that generate hits."

Jay Stanley, a policy analyst at the ACLU, told that the EFF report is an example of the issue of technology being rushed.

"We have a problem with these large dragnets," he said. "We also don't like when departments store the data for years."

Despite the privacy concerns, there are few complaints from law enforcement.

Kenner Police Chief Michael Glaser, whose department EFF said allowed footage to be streamed unprotected online, told that the cameras help keep the public safe and save taxpayers money. In the Bailey murder case, detectives identified gunman Joseph Humbles' car using a nearby license plate reader, then matched a fingerprint from Bailey's truck to Humbles.

Glaser's department operates 28 stationary readers — at a cost of $14,000 each -- strategically placed around the city, and two more in patrol cars.

"They help us with everything, homicides, stolen cars," he said, adding that only designated supervisors in his detective bureau can access the department's database and that the system purges itself after 18 months.

"The law-enforcement benefit clearly outweighs privacy concerns in this case," Glaser said.

Edmund DeMarche is a news editor for Follow him on Twitter @EDeMarche.