This article was submitted by guest contributor Derrick Broze.
Last Friday the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California filed the opening brief in their lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff Department. The lawsuit deals with how the law enforcement agencies are using Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPR) to gather information. The two watchdog agencies argue that the two departments are illegally keeping quiet on how the information is used.
The EFF and the ACLU fear that the ALPR mounted on traffic light poles and patrol vehicles are gathering information such as license plate, time, date and location, that can be used to create a detailed map of what individuals are doing. Concerns for privacy and freedom of speech prompted the lawsuit. The scanners are seen as an expansion of an already growing arsenal of federally funded surveillance tools, including drone aircraft, surveillance camera, and “gunshot detector” audio recording devices. In 2012 the Wall Street Journal reported that the five previous years the Department of Homeland Security distributed over $50 million in grants to fund the acquisition of license plate readers.
The LAPD and LASD have been called “two of the biggest gatherers of automatic license plate recognition information,” by LA Weekly. The ALPR gather information and officers from the LASD or LAPD can access up to 26 other police agenices in the county as they search for a hit in the system. The two departments are the target of the EFF, ACLU lawsuit but they are not alone in their use of the technology.
A 2011 survey by the Police Executive Research Forum ( http://policeforum.org/library/critical-issues-in-policing-series/Technology_web2.pdf) found that of the more than 70 police departments surveyed, 70 percent used ALPR technology and 85 percent expected to be using or increasing use of the technology within the next five years. Some believe that by 2016 as much as 25 percent of police vehicles will come equipped with the cameras.
It is not only the danger of creating a map of a persons wherabouts and habits, but also the fear of targeting individuals for various political or religious associations that has critics worried. There are also no standards on how long the information should be held, or who can hold it. Another issue deals with the so called “hot lists”.
The Danger of “Hot Lists”
Departments and officers can create lists of “vehicles of interest” and alert other ALPR users when the vehicle is spotted. Officers can search individuals plates numbers in the ALPR system to track during their shift. There seems to be no prerequisite of reasonable suspicion or a warrant needed to be added to such a list. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department manual on the ALPR offers more insight into the program.
As with many emerging technologies the future is still being written and opportunities for corruption and abuse are plenty. In 2009 the BBC reported on the case of John Cat. Catt is a regular attendee of anti-war protests in his home town, Brighton. His vehicle was tagged by police at one of the events and he was added to a “hotlist”. He said later while on a trip to London he was pulled over by anti-terror police. He was threatened with arrest if he did not cooperate and answer the questions of the police.
A recent investigation by Mudrock and the Boston Globe revealed that the Boston Police Department violated its own policies by failing to follow up on leads that were flagged by the ALPR scans. Public records requests by MudRock found that the BPD also collected information on its own officers. The BPD has reportedly stopped responding to email and phone calls seeking documents that they are required to disclose.
Push Back Against License Plate Readers
It seems that as awareness of the technology grows so does the opposition. In the age of Edward Snowden and the NSA many are wary of allowing more cameras to peer into their lives.
Recently the Santa Cruz City Council approved a $37,000 grant for the purchase of ALPRs for the Santa Cruz Police Department. There was a small, but vocal opposition at the council meeting. In Oregon Representative Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, recently testified in support of a state bill that would prohibit law enforcement agencies from keeping images and location data for more than 14 days unless being used in a criminal investigation. ACLU Oregon Executive Director David Fidanque asked the Senate Interim Committee On General Government, Consumer and Small Business Protection to create guidelines for the use of the technology that balance security with privacy.
In California Senator Jerry Hill has introduced a bill that would limit data retention and ban the sale of data gathered by ALPR technology. Hill’s Senate Bill 893 would prohibit the selling of information to any entity that is not a law enforcement agency or officer.
Preparing for the Technology to Expand
Without a doubt the ALPRs are going to adopted by more police departments in the same manner we are seeing the drone technology take off. What remains to be seen is how citizens respond to yet another encroachment on privacy and civil liberties. There will likely be a chilling factor for some if the technology expands into complete monitoring of daily driving and living habits. A 2009 study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police stated, “The risk is that individuals will become more cautious in the exercise of their protected rights of expression, protest, association, and political participation because they consider themselves under constant surveillance.”
Last summer the ACLU released a 34-page report called “You Are Being Tracked: How License Plate Readers Are Being Used To Record Americans’ Movements.” (http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/threatlevel/2013/07/YouAreBeingTracked.pdf) covering the many angle of the emerging technologies uses and possible abuses. Since that report we have learned much about the breadth and scope of the National Security Agency’s domestic spying apparatus. In December we learned that local police are using tools such as “tower dumps”, and “The Stingray” to collect information. The Automatic License Plate Readers are just one more tool for local law enforcement agencies, funded by the federal government, to erode privacy and establish a network of panopticons.
The result of the ACLU and the EFF’s efforts could lead to more transparency and a view into how the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles Sheriffs Department use the ALPRs. There is still a great deal of time for opponents of invasive surveillance and supporters of privacy to fight on a local level. By staying informed and proactive we can help create solutions that will bring us closer to freedom and allow new technologies to flourish.
Derrick Broze is an investigative journalist, community activist, gardener and promoter from Houston, Texas. He is the co-founder of The Houston Free Thinkers, and co-host of Free Thinker Radio. Broze also hosts and produces a weekly
podcast under the name the Conscious Resistance Live. His writing can be found on TheConsciousResistance.com, The Liberty
Beat, the Anti-Media, Activist Post, and other independent media sources.