Law enforcement agencies are increasingly using sophisticated cameras, called “automated license plate readers,” or ALPRs, to scan and record the license plates of millions of cars across the country. These cameras, mounted on top of patrol cars and on city streets, can scan up to 1,800 license plate per minute, day or night, allowing one squad car to record more than 14,000 plates during the course of a single shift.
Photographing a single license plate one time on a public city street may not seem problematic, but when the data are put into a database, combined with other scans of that same plate on other city streets, and stored forever, it can become very revealing. Information about your location over time can show not only where you live and work, but your political and religious beliefs, your social and sexual habits, your visits to the doctor, and your associations with others. And according to recent research reported in Nature, it’s possible to identify 95% of individuals with as few as four randomly selected geospatial data points (location plus time), making location data the ultimate biometric identifiers.
To better gauge the real threat to privacy posed by ALPRs, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU of Southern California asked the LAPD and LA Sheriff’s Department for information on their systems, including their policies on retaining and sharing information and all the license plate data each department collected over the course of a single week in 2012.
After both agencies refused to release most of the records we asked for, we sued. We hope to get access to these data, both to show just how many data the agencies are collecting and to show how revealing they can be.
Automated license plate readers are often touted as an easy way to find stolen cars — the system checks a scanned plate against a database of stolen or wanted cars and can instantly identify a hit, allowing officers to set up a sting to recover the car and catch the thief. But even when there’s no match in the database and no reason to think a car is stolen or involved in a crime, police keep the data.
According to the LA Weekly, the LAPD and LASD together already have collected more than 160 million “data points” (license plates plus time, date, and exact location) in the greater LA area — that’s more than 20 hits for each of the more than 7 million vehicles registered in LA County. That’s a ton of data, but it’s not all — law enforcement officers also have access to private databases containing hundreds of millions of plates and their coordinates collected by “repo” men.
Law enforcement agencies claim that ALPR systems are no different from an officer recording license plate, time and location information by hand. They also argue the data don’t warrant any privacy protections because we drive our cars around in public. However, as five justices of the Supreme Court recognized last year in U.S. v. Jones, a case involving GPS tracking, the ease of data collection and the low cost of data storage make technological surveillance solutions such as GPS or ALPR very different from techniques used in the past.
Police are open about their desire to record the movements of every car in case it might one day prove valuable. In 2008, LAPD police Chief Charlie Beck (then the agency’s chief of detectives) told GovTech magazine that ALPRs have “unlimited potential” as an investigative tool. “It’s always going to be great for the black-and-white to be driving down the street and find stolen cars rolling around… But the real value comes from the long-term investigative uses of being able to track vehicles — where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing — and tie that to crimes that have occurred or that will occur.” But amassing data on the movements of law-abiding residents poses a real threat to privacy, while the benefit to public safety is speculative, at best.
In light of privacy concerns, states including Maine, New Jersey, and Virginia have limited the use of ALPRs, and New Hampshire has banned them outright. Even the International Association of Chiefs of Police has issued a report recognizing that “recording driving habits” could raise First Amendment concerns because cameras could record “vehicles parked at addiction-counseling meetings, doctors’ offices, health clinics, or even staging areas for political protests.”
But even if ALPRs are permitted, there are still common-sense limits that can allow the public safety benefits of ALPRs while preventing the wholesale tracking of every resident’s movements. Police can, and should, treat location information from ALPRs like other sensitive information — they should retain it no longer than necessary to determine if it might be relevant to a crime, and should get a warrant to keep it any longer. They should limit who can access it and who they can share it with. And they should put oversight in place to ensure these limits are followed.
Unfortunately, efforts to impose reasonable limits on ALPR tracking in California have failed so far. Last year, legislation that would have limited private and law enforcement retention of ALPR data to 60 days — a limit currently in effect for the California Highway Patrol — and restricted sharing between law enforcement and private companies failed after vigorous opposition from law enforcement. In California, law enforcement agencies remain free to set their own policies on the use and retention of ALPR data, or to have no policy at all.
Some have asked why we would seek public disclosure of the actual license plate data collected by the police — location-based data that we think is private. But we asked specifically for a narrow slice of data — just a week’s worth — to demonstrate how invasive the technology is. Having the data will allow us to see how frequently some plates have been scanned; where and when, specifically, the cops are scanning plates; and just how many plates can be collected in a large metropolitan area over the course of a single week. Actual data will reveal whether ALPRs are deployed primarily in particular areas of Los Angeles and whether some communities might, therefore, be much more heavily tracked than others. If these data are too private to give a week’s worth to the public to help inform us how the technology is being used, then isn’t it too private to let the police amass years’ worth of data without a warrant?
After the Boston Marathon bombings, many have argued that the government should take advantage of surveillance technology to collect more data, rather than less. But we should not so readily give up the very freedoms that terrorists seek to destroy. We should recognize just how revealing ALPR data are and not be afraid to push our police and legislators for sensible limits to protect our basic right to privacy.
Jennifer Lynch and Peter BibringOriginal article posted on Laissez Faire Today
The NSA has a nasty little tendency to spy on people. And in a newly released report, its focus has turned to the pornographic tendencies of supposed enemies. Heh. A bit hypocritical for such a voyeuristic agency, wouldn't you say? But then, what is a government agency good for if not exemplifying hypocrisy. Will Oremus expounds...
It's hard to believe that more than ten years have gone by since we began writing The Daily Reckoning out of a Paris office back in July of 1999?
Since then, a lot has changed. We have seen the dot com boom and bust... a massive expansion of credit...real estate mania and meltdown?and epic highs and lows in the markets.
Nothing about the past ten years has been boring. And we have been there throughout, trying to help readers make some sense out of our global economy. And hopefully providing a few laughs along the way.
In short, we pen The Daily Reckoning each day -- for free -- to show you how to live well in uncertain times. We aim to make each article the most entertaining 15-minute read of your day.
Double edged sword. On the one hand, the good guys can catch the bad guys easier. If I were car czar, I would require all vehicles to have a high-tech identifier (say, a transponder that would reveal a unique ID when queried by a laser) instead of a metal rectangle that any idiot can affix or remove in two minutes with a flat-head screwdriver. In any case, increased data collection leads to good, bad or indifferent outcomes If Big Brother collects more data, so be it. At least in theory, we the people still have the right to trial by jury. And one of the defenses will be asking the State to prove that the evidence was legally obtained. I’m not a lawyer, but I understand that even for minor traffic offenses, the courts like to make sure the police have identified the driver, just not the vehicle. Also, in the past cases were dismissed when it was shown the government had violated privacy in obtaining their evidence. Whether this scrap of right to privacy remains, will be seen. In any case, more data brings its own headaches! The guy delivering papers at 5 AM (by car), the teens cruising at night, etc will confuse Big Brother looking for the next terrorist.
Central banks all over the world are in the midst of an epic race to see which country can devalue their currency the fastest. It's a pretty close race, but you may be surprised to find out who's in the lead. Jeff Desjardins displays the current standings via a humorous and informative "infographic." Check it out right here...
The first thing you might notice about the life of Felix Dennis is that he devoured crack cocaine during massive orgies with hookers at his mansion. Yet despite his penchant for sex and blow, he admitted, "making money is the one addiction I cannot shake." And thankfully, he wrote a book about it. Chris Mayer explains...
Right now, there is a way for you to travel almost anywhere in the world, completely free of charge. It stems from a relatively new phenomenon called "travel hacking," and if you follow a few simple tips, you could be on your way to a free vacation in no time. Chris Campbell has all the details, right here...
The S&P 500 may be getting all the headlines this week, but there's another sector of the market that is screaming "buy" right now. It may not be "sexy" and it certainly won't be grabbing any major press. But as Greg Guenthner explains, this corner of the market is poised to deliver a handful of savvy investors some incredible returns...
Next month, for major countries will become full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). That will increase the population of SCO member states to 3.05 billion. But why should you care? As Alasdair Macleod explains, this move could have a very important impact on the US dollar. Read on...