AI cameras are watching millions of cars in the US to nab criminals

A drug trafficker was arrested last year after an AI camera watched it move across states for two years.
Sejal Sharma
Representational image
Representational image


An artificial intelligence (AI) system, scanning 16 million license plates a week across 480 cameras in the Westchester County of New York, helped crack down on a drug trafficker by tracking his activity for two years.

He was arrested by the Westchester police, who pulled over his car and found 112 grams of crack cocaine, a semiautomatic pistol, and $34,000 cash, as per a report by Forbes. In 2023, the accused pleaded guilty to the drug trafficking charge.

Tracking cars

The automated license plate reader (ALPR) technology, which in the US is sometimes mounted on street poles or on top of police cars, captures images of license plates and allows law enforcement agencies to identify and compare plates against those of cars driven by people suspected of being involved in illegal activities.

Police have been doing vehicle plate surveillance for many years. With the integration of AI, it can now also observe and track driver behavior.

The lawyer of the accused, Ben Gold, is contesting that the AI-gathered evidence is “dragnet surveillance.” After the lawyer filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, it was revealed that the AI was doing more than looking at license plates.

It had also been recording the make, model, and color of the vehicle, which is useful in case the plate number of the vehicle can’t be seen or isn’t recorded.

Large-scale surveillance?

Overnight, the US changed as a country after 9/11. And its domestic and international mass surveillance capabilities grew immensely.

Now this is a matter of concern, but it’s also hard to weigh in on the trade-off between using AI to identify criminals and its use for large-scale surveillance. 

Gold, who spoke to Forbes, said, “This is the specter of modern surveillance that the Fourth Amendment must guard against. This is the systematic development and deployment of a vast surveillance network that invades society’s reasonable expectation of privacy.

“With no judicial oversight this type of system operates at the caprice of every officer with access to it,” he added.

Similar measures are being deployed in France ahead of the 2024 Olympics that are set to take place in the country. Cameras with AI will be placed to detect suspicious activity - like abandoned luggage and scan huge crowds - on the streets of Paris. Civil rights groups have sounded the alarm saying that such a technology is a threat to civil liberties, reported BBC.

Interesting Engineering had earlier reported that the UK had gone a step further in its use of AI cameras and started identifying cars that litter the road. The new AI cameras automatically send the identified littering offenses to the authorities, where personnel issues a fine of up to £100 or $126.

While we would all want to use AI for good, there’s no denying that it’s a double-edged sword. There are privacy concerns around AI that could potentially lead to data breaches and unauthorized access to personal information.

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