Users alarmed to find Google indexes gun serial numbers and license plates

When you enter a license plate number in Google Images, it can reveal the vehicle photo.


The recent proliferation of digital photography, online indexing, and cloud storage have combined with OCR technology (Optical Character Recognition) to create a perfect storm for privacy invasiveness in the modern era.

When you consider that the ability of tech companies to also use machine learning to understand what's in an image, the implications for privacy and civil rights are easy to see.

Users have recently been alarmed to discover that when you search for a license plate on Google images, Google's technology is so good that it can show you the car that's associated with that license plate number – assuming that it has a photo of it in its index.

The same is true for the indexing of guns when you search for a serial number online.

The idea was recently resurfaced to public attention by Jalopnik, but it's something that has been going on for some time.

source: Jalopnik
source: Jalopnik

While this only works when you search for a license plate in Google Images, the idea has raised questions for privacy enthusiasts.

Google Images is indexing images that are open and indexable on the web, and that's something that could create potential benefits for debt collectors, abusive stalkers who are trying to track someone down, or even someone looking to find a driver who dinged their car earlier that day.

But what's less obvious is the amount of other information that Google could have indexed about users. For example, everyone knows that cars in Google's Street View feature of Google Maps have their license plates blurred out.

While that information is blurred for the public, Google will have access to that original image data before it's blurred – meaning that they could easily create a searchable database of license plates in relation to locations.

And what about photos that people have in Google Drive or Google Photos? It means that any photos that people have on the service could be revealing license plate data (and other data) to Google. And it doesn't necessarily have to be a photo of the users' own car – a simple selfie uploaded to a cloud storage provider could reveal license plates and other data of unknowing users in the background.

Another similar issue is where it relates to serial numbers on guns. It was recently highlighted that the same kind of image search for a number can turn up the serial numbers of firearms – with Google even indexing photos from Facebook to bring in more results.

source: The Firearm Blog

While many gun enthusiasts have often argued that it doesn't matter if a firearm serial number is public, it does raise the question of Google's ability to build profiles on users by pulling vast numbers of data points together in order to understand, organize and index users in ways they may not have imagined possible.


Cindy Harper

Cindy Harper is a tech news staff writer based in Maryland, USA. After getting her start in local journalism, Cindy now reports mostly on social media stories for Reclaim. [email protected]