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Los Angeles Area Police Try To Defend Mass Surveillance With Auto License Plate Readers

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) reported that in court documents, Los Angeles area police are trying to defend their current practice of un-targeted, suspicion-less mass surveillance on all drivers:

"The agencies took a novel approach in the briefs they filed in EFF and the ACLU of Southern California’s California Public Records Act lawsuit seeking a week’s worth of Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR) data. They have argued that “All [license plate] data is investigatory.” The fact that it may never be associated with a specific crime doesn’t matter."

If you haven't followed the technology, automated license plate readers (ALPR), often called license plate scanners, allow law enforcement to scan, monitor and track all vehicles on public roads. Some devices are mounted on patrol cars. Other devices are stationary and mounted atop traffic-signal poles. ALPRs are used by law enforcment agencies in Georgia, other parts of California, and in 38 states.

The EFF article described how the technology works:

"The cameras are not triggered by any suspicion of criminal wrongdoing; instead, they automatically and indiscriminately photograph all license plates (and cars) that come into view. This happens without an officer targeting a specific vehicle and without any level of criminal suspicion. The ALPR system immediately extracts the key data from the image—the plate number and time, date and location where it was captured—and runs that data against various hotlists. At the instant the plate is photographed not even the computer system itself—let alone the officer in the squad car—knows whether the plate is linked to criminal activity."

So, the metadata that an ALPR device collects seems to be:

  • License plate number
  • License plate state
  • Vehicle, car, or truck owner
  • GPS location
  • Travel direction
  • Time and date
  • Road, street, or highway number
  • ALPR device ID number

Additional information about vehicle owners can be easily collected through searches of registry databases and commercial databases (e.g., Lexis-Nexis). The power of ALPR information is that it can be searched, to determine drivers' patterns: when and where you drive, and how often you have visited a particular destination.

Additional privacy concerns include how the long the data is archived, data sharing with other government agencies, access to information by defendants' lawyers, and methods to protect the information from hacks and data breaches:

"This sales video from Vigilant Solutions shows just how much the government can learn about where you've been and how many times you've been there when Vigilant runs their analytics tools on historical ALPR data. We can only understand how LA police are really using their ALPR systems through access to the narrow slice of the data we’ve requested in this case."

Last year, USA Today reported about the wide variance in archive policies: how long law enforcement departments archive ALPR data:

"... the lack of standardized procedures for dealing with license plate information. In Minnesota, pop. 5.3 million, the State Patrol purges scanned data after 48 hours and has fewer than 20,000 license-plate readings on file, the ACLU found. Milpitas, Calif., pop. 68,000, has 4.7 million license-plate scans on file and no policy for erasing them... a 2012 survey by the not-for-profit Police Executive Research Forum found that 71% of police agencies now use [ALPR]... many police departments are storing – for long periods of time – huge numbers of records on scanned plates that do not return 'hits.' For example, police in Jersey City, N.J., recorded 2.1 million plate reads last year. As of August 2012, Grapevine, Texas, had 2 million plate reads stored..."

This mass surveillance is an extreme over-reach, privacy violation, and problematic in several ways. As the EFF described:

"This argument is completely counter to our criminal justice system, in which we assume law enforcement will not conduct an investigation unless there are some indicia of criminal activity. In fact, the Fourth Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution exactly to prevent law enforcement from conducting mass, suspicionless investigations under “general warrants” that targeted no specific person or place and never expired."

Government shouldn't be allowed to ignore the "probable cause" in the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution:

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

What's your opinion of ALPRs? If this bothers you (and I surely hope that it does bother you), contact your elected officials and demand limits.


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