Gov’t tracks license plates, refuses citizens access to own records

October 30, 2014

Law enforcement agencies are collecting license plate data on millions of American cars. Who’s tracking your license plate? And does it matter? The answers may startle you. A compelling report by AutoBlog reveals how law enforcement is using automated license plate readers to collect data en masse, allowing them insight to millions of American drivers’ daily routines — in theory, to track down stolen vehicles and escape cars. In many cases, the public is unable to obtain these allegedly “public” records.

LAPD police car in an alley

Los Angeles is refusing to release millions of records it’s collected using license plate recognition technology. From Neil Kremer.

First, let’s take a look at how automated license plate readers operate. “Cameras are triggered by reflective material in license plates, and character-recognition software discerns plate numbers and attempts to match them against ‘hot lists’ of stolen cars, vehicles sought for Amber Alerts and known fugitives. When a match is found, it sends an alert,” explains AutoBlog. Most agencies will be able to hold onto the data — for offenders and non-offenders alike — for two to five years, during which time they may “pool the data with other agencies, which in turn may have different regulations on the length of time they can store data.”

While the great majority of the information collected by the automated license plate readers is on everyday drivers who haven’t been accused of crimes, it’s becoming more challenging to obtain access to it.

Does it matter if these agencies have access to your car’s whereabouts? That depends on how much you value your privacy. Dozens of records on your plates can, over time, share some of your most personal choices with government agencies: “Law enforcement can know where [drivers] work, who they associate with, which doctors they see, what political protests they attend, where they attend religious services and where they stop for their morning cup of coffee.”

In theory, data collection may seem a sound practice for nabbing car thieves and other criminals who escape by vehicle. And in fact, in one study in Mesa, Arizona, an area infamous for car theft, the readers were found to have some success, with a “hit rate” of .00005% when scanning 457,368 plates. However, that study also found that readers offer “a limited amount of promise for law enforcement” due to technical troubles, costs, and false positives.

Two particular cases highlight the scope and the significance of record requests. Take one example in Monroe County, New York, where a newspaper reporter’s open-records request — he requested license plate reader records for his car, two county vehicles, and six of his colleagues’ vehicles — was denied because officials claimed that the release of the records would hamper ongoing investigations, and that it would infringe on the privacy of the drivers (despite the reporter and his colleagues signing waivers authorizing their release). Yet, as the reporter, Steve Orr says, he and his colleagues are not under investigation. “What investigation is that? Most people in the database are not, and haven’t been associated with an investigation,” he said. “What it says is that we’re all suspects in waiting.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and ACLU are fighting to find out the extent of the government's records, and establish standards for how LPR-sourced information will be treated going forward. From Joel Kramer.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and ACLU are fighting to find out the extent of the government’s records, and establish standards for how LPR-sourced information will be treated going forward. From Joel Kramer.

Then there’s Los Angeles, which produces around three million such records weekly. In a suit, the Electronic Freedom Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union sought a week’s worth of license plate data gathered by the city’s police and sheriffs departments — over three million records. After a superior court judge’s ruling blocked the release of the records, the two organizations are now appealing.

In the California case, the law enforcement agencies argued that all cars are under suspicion and therefore “exempt from laws that would otherwise mandate their disclosure.” Yet most drivers are not under investigation. “You have a situation where 99.8 percent of these records have nothing to do with any kind of criminal investigation and the purpose of data collection is to solve crimes,” Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney with the EFF, explains to AutoBlog. Ideally, Lynch explains, police would hold onto the records for 48 hours, max, before deleting them.

Unlike the reporter Orr’s request for information on a select number of vehicles, in the Los Angeles case, a large amount of data is necessary to understand how the information is being used. Reports AutoBlog, “For example, without substantial data, they cannot learn if police officers are scanning more plates in one neighborhood versus another, nor gain more insight on how many records might exist for an average vehicle. Lynch says seeing millions of data points on a map better illustrates the vast scope of the readers and their intrusiveness.”

Is there a strong argument for capturing license plate data? One justification is that license plates are in full public view, and drivers have only reduced rights to privacy while in their vehicles. “From a legal perspective,” notes AutoBlog, “these cameras can operate specifically because a car’s license plate is considered in public view.”

What’s next? A court date for the Los Angeles appeal has not been set yet. Orr’s employer, the Democrat and Chronicle, has asked a judge to release the data requested by Orr. “It’s absurd to argue, as the county does, that our own whereabouts should be kept secret from us,” Orr told the newspaper. “It’s equally absurd to argue that any citizen whose plate happens to be imaged by a police camera is a potential criminal suspect. We should not all be treated as suspects-in-waiting.”

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Category: Legislation, municipal, Parking Tech, Regulations

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