Tiburon, the Town Where They Always Know Your Name


License-plate scanners

In what is the most detailed article about license-plate scanners that I've seen to-date, Ars Technica starts with a report on how up-scale Tiburon, California, scans every car that transits the two roads into town, and then discusses the legal ramifications and potential risks of the technology. It's really an excellent piece and well worth a read to gain a good grasp of where we're likely to go as plate scanners pop up hither and yon, and what that's likely to mean for our privacy in terms of enhanced law-enforcement, government intrusions and abuses.

For starters, Cyrus Farivar writes:

Tiburon, a small but wealthy town just northeast of the Golden Gate Bridge, has an unusual distinction: it was one of the first towns in the country to mount automated license plate readers (LPRs) at its city borders—the only two roads going in and out of town. Effectively, that means the cops are keeping an eye on every car coming and going.

A contentious plan? Not in Tiburon, where the city council approved the cameras unanimously back in November 2009.

The scanners can read 60 license plates per second, then match observed plates against a "hot list" of wanted vehicles, stolen cars, or criminal suspects. LPRs have increasingly become a mainstay of law enforcement nationwide; many agencies tout them as a highly effective "force multiplier" for catching bad guys, most notably burglars, car thieves, child molesters, kidnappers, terrorists, and—potentially—undocumented immigrants.

There's a high creepy factor for those of us inclined in that direction, but the town boasts of some benefits that we'll have to take at face value.

Cronin explained that in a town like Tiburon, where the biggest criminal concern is property crime, knowing who is coming and going at odd hours has been very helpful to the squad. The chief added that, prior to deploying the cameras, crime was still relatively low—only about 100 to 120 thefts per year, he said. Since the cameras have been in place, that figure has dropped by "around a third," he said.

For intelligent, systematic criminals, I can easily see how license-plate scanners would be a deterrent. So would any intrusive tracking technology. Still, the town's police concede the risks.

[T]he system is not without flaws. It tends to yield numerous false positives because the hot list data received from the California Department of Motor Vehicles takes a long time to be updated—and because the system cannot distinguish out-of-state plates. This creates a problem if, for instance, California plate ABC123 has been reported as stolen and is on the hotlist, and then someone drives through Tiburon with Oregon plate ABC123. (Other LPR systems can distinguish the plates from different states.) …

And he recognizes the system's easy susceptibility to abuse. "We could put our boss's plates in the system and every time she leaves town we could go get her golf clubs," he joked.

To prevent problems, only Cronin and Hutton can add plates to the hot list. Each time a plate is run for historical data by either an officer or requested by an outside agency, the requester has to inform the chief by e-mail. Requests are tallied in an annual report for the town council.

Elsewhere, as the article details, false positives have had some unpleasant outcomes. including a woman ordered out of her car at gunpoint in San Francisco in a stop later upheld by the courts. And license-plate tracking has also helped solve crimes, including a murder in New York.

As I've written and said on television, I have serious concerns about this technology. I have no doubt that it can help solve crimes. The same could be said of random home searches. But I think the dangers and likely abuses outweigh any potential gains.

But go read the Ars Technica piece and decide for yourself.


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  1. “force multiplier” for catching bad guys, most notably burglars, car thieves, child molesters, kidnappers, terrorists, and?potentially?undocumented immigrants.

    You know, I might even go all Tulpa on everyone here and say that I don’t have a huge problem with this, if there are very specific parameters on how this is used.

    If they scan a license plate, cross reference it with a database to detect if the car is stolen, or the driver (owner) has outstanding felony warrants, then immediately deletes the record the moment it pops up clean, I could possibly live with such a system.

    But anything which tracks the movements of citizens for later open-ended perusal by law enforcement agencies seems to have obvious constitutional problems.

    If the case is the latter, then it’s the equivalent of an officer stopping you as you enter town, recording your license plate and asking what your business is, how long you plan on staying etc.

    1. And he recognizes the system’s easy susceptibility to abuse. “We could put our boss’s plates in the system and every time she leaves town we could go get her golf clubs,” he joked.

      I should have read the whole blogpost. So it seems that the case is the latter: That it goes into a permanent database for later perusal by law enforcement. Sorry Tulpa, you’re on your own on this one.

      1. Like anything the government tries to do with colossal amounts of data, from “no fly lists” to license plate scanners, you will get terrible fuckups and abuse.

        As they increase their use of technology to stockpile vast amounts of information and then try and mine it, we will be entering Harry Buttle/Tuttle territory more and more.

        1. Hat size, 7 1/2.

          So they went back to metric and nobody told us!

          Twenty seven B stroke six!

  2. Tiburon, that name just has a surrealistic dystopian sound to it.

    “We could put our boss’s plates in the system and every time she leaves town we could go get her golf clubs sit around and serf porn all day on the taxpayer’s dime,” he joked said matter of factly.

    1. For a moment, it reminded me of a Hyundai model sold in the late 1990s-early 2000s.

      Tiburon, could be the sister city of Portmeirion in Wales, where the British tv “The Prisoner” was filmed featuring Patrick McGoohan as “Number 6” trying to find different ways to get out of “The Village”.

      1. I had this awful moment where I imagined it being a planet populated 100% by bureaucrats.

        1. That will never happen. Every parasite needs a host, or it perishes.

          1. Then can we just send all bureacrats and politicians and their useful idiots to planet Tiburon will they will surely perish?

    2. Hyperion| 8.15.12 @ 8:00PM |#
      “Tiburon, that name just has a surrealistic dystopian sound to it.”

      The town is weird, but the name = “shark” in Spanish.

      1. Shark is tubarao in Portuguese.

        1. So either the Spanish or the Portuguese can’t spell?
          I’m beginning to think the Euros are such whackos since they have to learn three words for a thing if they drive twenty miles.

  3. I still can’t believe the Great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania doesn’t require forward facing plates yet. For officer safety. I assume these cameras only snag front plates.

    1. I can’t think of a reason they couldn’t snag back plates. Especially since they’re successfully scanning out-of-state cars. Not all states require front plates, so if you were attempting 100% scan rate, you’d have to scan back plate.

      1. Maryland is the first state that I have lived in that requires front plates, at least since I have been old enough to drive and owned a car.

        1. Texas requires them for some reason. Makes me angry. My first car that I bought in high school for a couple grand cash way back when didn’t have a bracket for a front plate. So, since it was already a POS when I bought it, I just got two nails and nailed the damned thing onto the front bumper.

          1. That was back when they still had wooden bumpers?

            1. No, I hammered it through the plastic. I should point out that I grew up in Kentucky before moving to Texas, so “classy” is my middle name.

              1. You’re from KY and your car had bumpers? Were you the Governer’s son or something?

                1. Nah, his son could afford two cars; the getting-around machine AND a bitchin torn up camaro sitting on cinderblocks in his front yard. Damned 1%’ers!

              2. Well fuck man, you coulda just duct taped it on then, (:

            2. Remember the car called the Adobe? It had bumpers made out of clay, so you just took out a trowel and fixed them after a collision.

              1. That’s funny.

                1. I don’t care who you are.

        2. Nevada requires them.

          Oregon not only requires them, but requires you to put the registration stickers on both front and back plates. And there are two of the damn stickers for each fucking plate; somehow Nevada managed just fine with only one.

          1. Texas used to require stickers on the rear plate, but we had a rash of people stealing them. So now the tax stamp goes on the windshield by the inspection tag.

      2. California allow out-of-state cars within its borders? Do they know the slack emission standards other states let their citizens get away with?

        1. That’s why they don’t let you in, right? Your “emissions”?

          1. I emit after I’m let in. Booo-yaaaah.

        2. You can check in any time you like but you can never leave.

          1. The Golden State and its steely knives, take your best shot.

        3. Surprisingly yes, and the y don’t require you to have a front license plate if you’re from a state (like mine, AZ) that doens’t use them.

          The military however, does require you to get your vehicles smog checked in state before letting you have a base pass – sucks when you bring a 1980 Jeep in from a state that only smogs in two cities.

    2. Don’t let them get any ideas from their neighbors to the south.

    3. Last time the PA government changed its license plate design, I read on a PA government website why the government didn’t require two license plates. They had to links to studies claiming that front plates don’t improve the ability of police to identify who owns a car, and front plates cost extra.

  4. I wonder who would win if a war broke out between the Tiburonians and the Romulans? The Tiburonians would at least have the advantage of being able to catalogue all of the license plates of the Romulan fleet.

    1. No — the Romulans have cloaking devices, you will recall.

      1. Their new leader, Mitt Romney, cut the budget for the cloaking devices.

        1. I thought Mitt was one of the lizard people, not a Romulan?

          1. Bush is a lizard, and Cheney, and Rummy too. They are all Lizards, but Mittens is a Romulan fer sure. The name Romney actually means of Romulus, duh, I thought everyone knew that.

            1. I have a hard time identifying which one’s are lizards since my sunglasses broke.

              1. I can identify them with the passive 3D glasses for my TV. But sometimes I see two lizards when there is only one, especially when I am drunk.

                1. I was right in the middle of a fucking reptile zoo! And somebody was giving booze to these god damn things! It wont be long now, before they tear us to shreds.

                  Pleas tell me about the fucking golf shoes!

  5. There’s an easy fix to the duplicate plate numbers from different states — national license plates. Duh.

    1. Don’t give them any ideas, or soon we will be driving around with 2 sets of plates, one state and one federal, front and back.

      1. I think ideally you would have them on both the driver’s and passenger’s side as well, for easy surveillance from building-mounted anti-crime cameras.

        1. Don’t forget the ones on the roof. Drones, ya know.

          1. They’ll just require a taxi-like placard, so it can be visible from all angles.

        2. CE| 8.15.12 @ 8:25PM |#
          “I think ideally you would have them on both the driver’s and passenger’s side as well, for easy surveillance from building-mounted anti-crime cameras.”

          Tats in visible places on the body would help, along with identifying symbols sewn on clothes.
          Oh, wait…

    2. Uh, would this new agency be run by a Cabinet-level bureaucrat?

      1. But of course, with an entire minion of little mini-me nanniecrats under their direct control.

        1. And since it’s an agency, they get to issue all sorts of ‘regulations’ that aren’t ‘laws’, doncha know, but seem to have the same effects without anyone in Congress getting blamed!

          1. And then they get to order 40 million rounds of hollow point bullets with the tax payer money.

    3. Once all cars have gps tracking devices installed they won’t need plates at all. They’ll i.d. you from that. Of course eventually you’ll have them implanted at birth “for the children”.

      1. Don’t worry though, nothing can go wrong. Once they ID you and send in the killer drone to take you out, they will offer a former apology to your family after they realize you weren’t that terrorist that they were tracking after all. And really, this will save us lots of money, no need for tazers or bullets to shoot dogs, and no risking our officers, they can just all have desk jobs now.

        1. They will have safety mechinisms built in to make sure nothing goes wrong.

        2. Why use a drone when they can just explode the chip or use it to fry your brain?

          1. Cause there ain’t no chips yet. But there is drones. And by Gawd, we needs to use them new fangled toys.

  6. That “sovereign individual” movement gets more appealing every day.

    1. You’ll end up on the SPLC shit list for sure.

  7. Pig Maher: President Obama ‘A Dismal Failure And A Liar’ On Drug Policy

    Either that headline was an accident, which is hilarious, or it’s intentional, which is hilariouser.

    1. Pig Maher, RFLMAO! That’s the best thing I have seen in a while, and the best name I have heard today outside of ‘Red Tony’. FTW!

    2. “No, of course, it’s ridiculous,” Maher then turned serious, offering harsh words for the president: “This is one area where Obama has been such a dismal failure and a liar.”

      “One area”??! Really? C’mon Pig get yer fuckin act together, or no one’s gonna think your an edgy libertarian when we get a republican president. Boot lickin’ cunt.

      1. Damn, GBN, there were rumors around here that you had been eaten by a naked zombie warrior of the Zulu nation.

        1. Close, I was in Seattle for a week. Being on 405 is as close to being surrounded by zombies as I ever wanna get.

          1. I believe it, if it’s anything like driving in Portland. I’ve never driven in Seattle. But last time I was driving around in Portlandia, it was totally surreal because everyone was driving the speed limit and obeying traffic laws, which is fucking unheard of in Maryland.

            1. There ain’t no goddamn fast lane up there. If you want to speed up you have to dart back and forth between lanes, and even then you’ll only get up to 75-80mph. When I was driving home from the airport I was happily motoring along at 85 in the right lane with people passing me in the left lane…as god intended!

          2. Beautiful area though. Been out there twice, once for 10 days, and loved it. Definately heavy traffic. 5 was a nightmare.

            1. Oh yeah, it’s absolutely beautiful. Spent most of the time hiking in the mountains away from the crowds. As soon as Epi’s restraining order on me expires I will be moving out there.

      2. “Maher then turned serious, offering harsh words for the president”

        Fuck Maher. He gets to call when his bullshit is “serious” and when he’s “joking”?
        There’s an asshole columnist is the SF Chomical who uses the same dodge, and it’s tiring to see his claims of ‘I didn’t mean it’ when he gets called on his bullshit.

        1. Wow, look at this comment from Fox News poster disgustedvet:

          “Maher is just like Ron Paul’s supporters. They like everything about obama EXCEPT his dope policy”.

          Yeah, sure.

          1. He is one seriously misinformed guy I guess, or else he took some shrapnel to the brain.

    3. Pig Maher? Wow, Fox News really doesn’t like it when you criticize the president.

    4. This already had its own post today. Whenever I do that Epi gives me shit, so where is Epi? I demand he and Warty settle this the libertarian way.

      1. Pig Maher had it’s own post?

        1. I understand the hilarity of the headline, but the story of Maher condemning Obama on drug policy was posted earlier this afternoon.

          1. Right, but Pig Maher takes the win today as far as making me LMAO, except for maybe sarcamic’s Red Tony.

      2. A pigou tax?

  8. Boy, CNN is really hammering the gun control angle with regard to the Family Research Council shooting. The article about the shooting has a pleathora of links to stats about gun violence, the shooting near Texas AM, and the machinations of the NRA.

    It seems very out of place given that this was clearly politically motivated based on information released.

    1. A law enforcement official said the gunman made some remarks opposing the Family Research Council’s policies before opening fire. He is now in custody, but has not been formally charged, the FBI said.

      Well if the angle is to keep guns out of the hands of liberal wankers, I’m all fer it.

      Of course I have little to no knowledge about the “Family Research Center”, but given its name, it’s probably agin homasexshuls, messicans, ‘bortion ‘n and wants your teenage girls covered up in three layers of clothing. So not much love for them on that point.

      However, if they are a big fat pro-gun conservative organization, here’s an opportunity for them to allow open carry in their HQ by all staff.

      1. In D.C.? Afraid not. There’s a good possibility it’s prohibitively regulated even to arm their security.

    2. Any explanation for the Chick-Fil-A bag yet? Guy definitely didn’t know how to use a gun, so maybe he had more experience causing mayhem and death with Chick-Fil-A bags. Ban Chick-Fil-A bags!

    3. And, yet again, happened in a “gun-free zone.”

  9. What does the UK think it’s doing?
    The embassy is sovereign territory
    A police custody van is parked 20 metres from the front door of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.…..249pe.html

    Save Assange!

    1. The embassy is, the sidewal out front is not.

      Course the Ecuadorians could jsut put Assange into the diplomatic bag, either for real or euphamistically.

    2. What’s really crap about this is that this sort of behavior is really our fault.

      Since the fall of the SU we’ve basically felt that since noone can challenge us militarily we can do whatever we want and fuck law and tradition.

      Now others are starting this crap.

      There’s a reason embassies are sancrsanct and whatever people think of Assange, nothing he’s done is worth tearing down centuries of accumulated precedent.

      1. Romney is sweatin’ China.

  10. What does the UK think it’s doing?

    They don’t have a fucking clue. Damn limeys don’t even know the correct side of the road to drive on.

    1. They also don’t know the proper words to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”

  11. “. . . many agencies tout them as a highly effective “force multiplier” for catching bad guys, most notably burglars, car thieves, child molesters, kidnappers, terrorists, and?potentially?undocumented immigrants.”

    How exactly do they help catch burglars, child molesters, kidnappers, terrorists, and undocumented immigrants?

    In all these cases either you already know who the suspect is, and the LPR only help you catch the few that are able to run, or you don’t know who these people are and an LPR does nothing for you.

    The only case I can see LPR’s being useful for is stolen vehicles – and even then only in a short timeframe between a vehicle being reported stolen and the thieves getting it off the road and removing the plate.

    1. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – there is no compelling governmental function being served by having to have a license plate.

    2. If they store the data, then they can find out what cars were near the area of the crime when it happened. That can help create a suspect list. Or if they think they caught the right person, they can help confirm that if they find out his car was near the scene at the time.

  12. This type of thing would provide a nice alibi if you had a buddy drive through in your car around the time you were going OJ on your ex-wife/boss/enemy.

  13. Fuck license plates. Fuck traffic laws. Fuck the idea of roads existing for the convenience of any specific kind of traffic. Go karts and horses have the same right to use a public road as automobiles.

    1. Public right of ways are nothing but common open space easements on private property.

  14. This article is fucking hilarious:

    The Epic Failure of Tantrum Politics

    1. That was fucking hilarious. Thanks for the link:)

  15. the hot list data received from the California Department of Motor Vehicles takes a long time to be updated

    WTF? Does it have to be transcribed from voicemail and typed in by hand, or what?

    Hot. List.

    1. It means that you have 30 year old computers and a guy that has been there for 30 years, who can’t be fired and hasn’t bothered to learn anyting new in that 30 years. So you have DOS 1.0 boy writing code in GW Basic and the old data entry hag entering things in on the green monocrhome monitors that only work half the time now. And besides new computer equipment is expensive and not enough revenue. That’s what it means.

      1. So you’re for a new tax and more money in their budget?

        1. What difference would that make? Not enough revenue is a permanent condition. My point is that they probably don’t have the latest equipment because they waste all of the money they get no matter how much it is. I would cut their budget so hard that they could feel their fucking spleens if it was up to me.

          1. My friend works for a govt dept. They have programs that can only run on IE6.

            1. Good grief, IE6 is the worst fucking browser ever known to man. You can’t get anything type of web application to work in it without all sorts of FUBAR hacks. Having to use IE6 is punishment for capital murder in some countries.

              1. The irony is those people who have to use IE6 for that program get Chrome.
                Everyone else has to use IE7

                1. What OS are they using? Windows 95?, lol.

                2. Yup, our hospital has everyone on thin clients that run only IE7. IS says they can’t upgrade because it would screw up too many of the other programs. So they let me add Chrome so I can use gmail.

          2. Wow, a little touchy aren’t we? It was just a joke. Lighten up, Francis.

  16. Brilliance:
    Dave Mustaine says the Colorado massacre was part of the president’s anti-gun agenda.

    1. Awesomeness! I always liked Mustaine, Megadeth are one of my favs, and am glad he split with those pussies Metallica. And now I like him even more. HOLY WARS!

    2. Dave Mustaine has always been the best sort of crazy. I love that loony ginger.

      1. Warty: Have you seen the Lemmy documentary (it’s on Netflix)?
        What did you think?

        1. You don’t have to actually look at Lemmy’s face for 60 minutes do you? That could cause nightmares.

          1. There’s a few seconds he’s not on screen.

  17. Biden is the stupidest politician in history, he has no equal.

    Wrong Century for Biteme

  18. Sounds like my kinda town dude. WOw.

  19. Perfectly reasonable to be using the scanners to find cars with expired registrations or stolen vehicles.

    Completely improper to tie that information to the fact that the vehicle’s owner may have a warrant. I think that undoubtedly constitutes a search.

    Slippery slope, this.

  20. Brought to you by deficit spending.

  21. I use to live a couple miles from Tiburon. It’s gorgeous and has an awesome view of San Francisco. We would often drive through town and park to see SF. Creepy that they were recording our visits.

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