Privacy SOS

A change in tune: law enforcement now aggressively promoting retroactive surveillance capabilities of license plate readers

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Police departments in Southern California have come under fire from civil liberties groups for hoarding collected license plate data and using that data to track the movements of motorists not accused of any crime, just in case. The industry is now hitting back against negative press with an ad campaign that forwards license plate readers as a public safety Godsend, apparently with no conceivable downsides. The above commercial was produced by one of the largest license plate reader manufacturers in the country, PIPS Technology, and features law enforcement officers from departments in Southern California fawning over the tool with giddy admiration. The ad says literally nothing about privacy or the need to safeguard, delete or restrict the sharing of drivers' intimate location data.

It appears as if police have decided to stop playing defense on the license plate data question.

Using guidance from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), law enforcement argues that the license plate data it now routinely sucks up in cities and towns nationwide is not personally identifiable information, and therefore doesn't require much in the way of protection or restrictions on use or sharing. The IACP's privacy guidance on license plate readers laughably claims that license plate reader data is not personally identifiable because it requires an extra step before determining the name of the driver — the click of a mouse.

A license plate number identifies a specific vehicle, not a specific person.  Although a license plate number may be linked or otherwise associated with an identifiable person, this potential can only be realized through a distinct, separate step (e.g., an inquiry to a Secretary of State or Department of Motor Vehicles data system). Absent this extra step, the  license plate number and the time and location data attached to it are  not personally identifying. Thus, even though LPR systems automate the collection of license plate numbers, it is the investigative process that identifies individuals.
That's a real stretch. But it is a powerful legal assertion. By arguing that license plate reader data isn't personally identifiable, IACP is implicitly saying that it mustn't be protected as seriously as does personal information about us that doesn't require clicking a mouse — the "distinct, separate step." 
That's relevant in the real world because it means officers can collect, retain and share this very sensitive information with virtually no restrictions.
And are departments ever hoarding the data. An officer in the above video describes how valuable is the technology to police departments, focusing on how the deployment of mobile and fixed cameras together can give officers a kind of total information awareness about who is driving around a city, when and where. Police departments and license plate reader manufacturers appear to have stopped pretending that their technology simply enables police to do what they've always done, more efficiently. Facing backlash from the press and organizations like the ACLU, they are now clearly articulating the merits of storing all of the data for long periods of time: retroactive surveillance, or "walking back" someone's movements to solve crimes quickly. 
The best systems are the ones that combine the mobile and the fixed point cameras, for several reasons. Number one: You have the fixed point cameras at strategically picked locations, you can tell what vehicles were leaving the scene of a crime, that go through that intersection…you'll be able to identify that vehicle. From that point, the mobile works in concert with that because the mobile units are constantly driving throughout your city, and everywhere they go they are mapping out your city. They're taking photographs of the cars and the license plates at every location and every house that they go by. You'll identify the cars at the fixed point locations that you're looking for and the mobile cameras are going to tell you, their data is going to tell you exactly where to find that car, and then you start doing your investigation. Very, very, very powerful from an investigative tool. 
The networked sharing system described in the video above and operational in Southern California reportedly had 160 million data points in it in July 2012 — the vast majority on people accused of no crime. Officers can use database software to map any one drivers' movements throughout the region, at the click of a button. 
There's no disputing that a full on surveillance society, replete with databases tracking our every movement, will result in more efficient law enforcement investigations and better conviction rates. This kind of pervasive, omnipresent surveillance raises constitutional questions that the courts have yet to adequately work through. But there's a fundamental question we need to ask ourselves that doesn't hinge on the legality of these kinds of warrantless searches:
Do we want to live in that kind of a world? I don't think so. Unfortunately, nobody seems to care what we think, so police are doing it anyway.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.