Being caught on camera comes with the territory in the UK, where license plate recognition systems are well established. But now the technology is taking root in the United States.

U.S. police are seeing spectacular results from license plate recognition systems, which extend the reach of police, providing functionality much like an extra officer. Nearly 400 of the 1,800 police agencies in the United States now have at least one license plate reader, and as the word of its potential spreads and prices fall, that number is expected to grow.

Since 1991, Britons have watched as the number of cameras used to keep an eye on the public has grown to more than 4 million. There are more than 200,000 in London alone, and by some estimates, Britons are filmed more than 300 times a day.

In the United States, the technology emerged on toll roads where radio frequency identification (RFID) transponders are used instead of human toll collectors. License plate recognition technology records the identity of motorists who blow through toll plazas without a transponder. Now police departments -- such as those in Los Angeles and Sacramento, Calif. -- use the technology to locate stolen vehicles, and others use it for surveillance.

License plate recognition systems typically consist of cameras mounted on police squad cars or in fixed locations. The cameras are linked to an optical character recognition (OCR) processor that reads the data and compares it to one or more databases. In the event of a "hit" on a license plate in a stolen vehicle database, for example, an alarm alerts officers of the match.


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Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor