Who's Scanning Your License Plate?


Police cars mounted with automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) wind their way through the streets of Oakland, California like a “Snake” game on an old cell phone. Instead of eating up pixels of food, these cameras gobble down thousands of license plates each day. And instead of growing a longer tail, ALPRs feed into a giant database of locational data as they conduct surveillance on every driver within the city limits, and sometimes beyond.

This is the portrait that emerged when the Electronic Frontier Foundation analyzed eight days of ALPR data provided by the City of Oakland in response to a request under the California Public Records Act.

As cities and counties across the country pursue new law enforcement technologies, EFF [has been collaborating] since May 2013 with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California in a legal battle with two Los Angeles law enforcement agencies who are refusing to hand over a week's worth of ALPR data.

San Diego County, another jurisdiction, has similarly fought efforts by citizens to obtain access to data that law enforcement has collected on them using ALPRs. Both claim that the records are exempted under the California Public Records Act because they are records of law enforcement investigations. The agencies also argue the public interest in maintaining secrecy in ALPR data outweighs the public interest in learning how and where ALPR systems are being used.

The rub here is that law enforcement agencies like those in LA, San Diego, and Oakland aren't using ALPR for targeted investigations, but rather running a dragnet on all drivers in their jurisdictions. As states across the country become more and more concerned about ALPRs and take steps to limit their use, we believe the disclosure of a limited amount of license plate records will help to inform public debate on this mass surveillance tool.

Events in other jurisdictions support our position.

After Muckrock and the Boston Globe obtained Boston Police ALPR data, the city suspended the program in the wake of the privacy concerns raised by the data. When the Minneapolis Star-Tribune obtained ALPR data that it used to track the whereabouts of the mayor, it kicked off debate in the legislature about how to balance the privacy of innocent drivers against the ability of police to fight crime. As a Minneapolis city official noted at a public hearing on ALPRs after the data release, “now that we see someone's patterns in a graphic on a map in a newspaper, you realize that person really does have a right to be secure from people who might be trying to stalk them or follow them or interfere with them.”

A state legislator and former police chief noted at that same hearing, “even though technology is great and it helps catch the bad guys, I don't want the good guys being kept in a database.

Not all California law enforcement agencies have followed Los Angeles and San Diego's lead. Whereas Los Angeles cops have stalled for more than a year and a half, Oakland provided raw ALPR data in just under two months.

EDITORS NOTE: The full version of this story, along with tables and interactive maps, is available HERE.

Jeremy Gillula is a staff technologist for the San Diego-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Dave Maass is media relations coordinator and investigative researcher for EFF. Maass, a former investigative reporter for San Diego CityBeat was a 2012 Fellow in the John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting program. They welcome comments from readers.

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