Vehicle Cloning — Another Reason Not To Use Automated License Plate Readers

Over the last decade, increasing numbers of automated license plate readers (ALPR) have been installed on roads, bringing with them a variety of privacy problems, as Techdirt has reported. It’s easy to see why ALPR is popular with the authorities: license plate readers seem a simple way to monitor driving behavior and to catch people breaking traffic laws, by speeding, for example.

Since the whole process can be automated, from reading the license plates to sending out fines, it looks like an efficient, low-cost alternative to placing large numbers of police officers around the road network. There’s just one problem: the whole system is based on the assumption that the license plate on the car is genuine, and can be used to identify the person responsible for the vehicle. As an article on “car cloning” in the Guardian reports, drivers in the UK are discovering that this assumption no longer holds.

The problem is that people are making copies of other drivers’ license plates, and using them on similar-looking vehicles — generally the same model and same color — to break the law with impunity. When the ALPR cameras catch the cloners speeding, or failing to pay fees for entering special zones like London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), the fines are sent to the actual owner of the license plate, not the perpetrator. The result is misery for those unlucky enough to have their license plates cloned, since it is hard to convince the authorities that automated license plate readers have made a mistake when there is apparent photographic evidence they haven’t. The experience of one driver interviewed by the Guardian is typical:

The most recent incident happened in July 2021, when he received two penalty charge notices from different London councils — one for driving in a bus lane and the other for an illegal left turn. Both notices included photos purporting to show his five-door Audi A3 car.

Despite him providing extensive evidence that at the time of one of the offences his vehicle was in a car park, and demonstrating that the one in the photo appeared to be a three-door Audi A1, the council concerned rejected his appeal.

Only when he sent in photos of his vehicle type and the one in the CCTV image where he had “circled all the differences” was the matter dropped.

Even when no fines are involved, vehicle cloning can cause financial problems for innocent drivers, as another case mentioned by the Guardian shows:

Late last year, the Guardian was contacted by another driver who had fallen victim to car cloning. The 88-year-old’s insurance doubled at renewal to £1,259 [about $1600] and she was told this was because her Ford Fiesta had been involved in an accident on the M25 [London’s main ring road] .

Despite her pointing out that she had not driven on the M25 for more than a decade, and that she had been either at church or at home at the time of the accident — and the fact that she had reported that her car had been cloned to Hertfordshire police — her insurer, Zurich, refused to take the claim off her file. Only after the Guardian intervened did the firm restore her no-claims bonus and reduce her premium accordingly.

The more automated license plate readers are installed in order to stop people breaking traffic laws, the greater the incentive for criminals and the unscrupulous to use cloned plates to break those laws without any consequences. What may once have seemed the system’s great strength — the fact that it provides photographic evidence of law breaking — turns out to be a huge weakness that can be turned against it.

Source: Vehicle Cloning — Another Reason Not To Use Automated License Plate Readers | Techdirt

Robin Edgar

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