VA State Police Collected Massive Amounts Of License Plate Data By Scanning Plates At Political Rallies

from the a-complete-disdain-for-the-public dept

There are many legitimate uses for license plate data -- tracking auto theft or vehicles used in the commission of crimes. Collection of plate and location data by automatic license plate readers can be troublesome in terms of privacy, but this can usually be mitigated by the prompt disposal of data unrelated to criminal activity. Unfortunately, many states are operating license plate readers without privacy safeguards in place, or are simply building massive databases with no disposal plans for "non-hit" plate data.

Over in Virginia, state police are doing everything wrong when it comes to responsibly deploying automatic license plate readers. It's grabbing massive amounts of license plate and location data, holding onto the info for multiple years, and targeting drivers engaged in First Amendment-protected activity.

From 2010 until last spring, the Virginia State Police (VSP) maintained a massive database of license plates that allowed them to pinpoint the locations of millions of cars on particular dates and times. Even more disturbing, the agency used automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) to collect information about political activities of law-abiding people. The VSP recorded the license plates of vehicles attending President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, as well as campaign rallies for Obama and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin...
The chilling effects of the state's activity are obvious.
[B]y creating and maintaining a database of millions of license plates and targeting political activity, the VSP crossed well over the line from legitimate law enforcement to oppressive surveillance. In the cases of the campaign rallies and the 2009 inauguration, the VSP collected personally identifying information on drivers solely because those drivers were heading to a political event. These drivers were not suspected of or connected to any crime — their only offense was practicing their First Amendment rights to speak freely and assemble peacefully.
This wasn't just a local operation. Documents obtained by the ACLU via a FOIA request show the Virginia state police operated in conjunction with the FBI to utilize its database to search for "hits" against the state's collected license plate data.

Also included in the documents are two promotional slideshows from ELSAG, the license plate reader supplier. These detail the many advantages of its system, including inputs for facial recognition cameras. When not putting suspended/uninsured drivers into the same list of criminals as the DC snipers and human traffickers, the slideshow is bragging about how many records it's able to collect and retain (50 million in NYC alone without losing a single record!). It also details the exploits of Arizona DPS officer David "Army of ONE" Callister, who was able to rack up 1.1 million "reads" in 16 months.

Unsurprisingly, there's not a single slide in the deck that deals with privacy concerns or the disposal of "non-hit" data. The second deck goes even further, encouraging LEOs to "drive up the numbers" (rack up as many hits as possible). It states: "Read 1000 tags, get a stolen, read 6,000 get an arrest." Does anyone other than ELSAG and law enforcement officers like those odds?

Now, were Virginia police looking to hassle politically-minded citizens? Probably not. Targeting both sides of the political aisle indicates the department's intention wasn't necessarily to chill free speech. This looks more like a crime of opportunity. Thousands of cars headed to (or parked at) single locations was simply too much data to pass up. But the underlying effect remains: even if this wasn't politically motivated, the state police have the technology in place to target any gathering it finds undesirable.

Although it comes far too late to head off the state's collection endeavors, the State Attorney has issued a statement condemning this use of LPRs.
In a strong opinion, Cuccinelli explained that the use of ALPRs for “passive” collection of information violates Virginia’s Government Data Collection and Dissemination Act. That is, law enforcement may use ALPRs to search for specific vehicles suspected of involvement in criminal activity, but it may not simply collect and save data on thousands of vehicles for which there is no grounds for suspicion.
This statement runs directly contrary to the selling points of the LPRs, at least according to ELSAG. In its pitch, more scans equals more hits, and that's all the justification most officers are going to need. This isn't targeted technology. This is mass scanning hardware that relies on thousands of reads in order to land a direct hit, and it's backed by a company that brags about a single officer racking up over a million scans on his own. These two viewpoints clash badly, and as strongly as the AG feels about this, he's got an uphill battle against law enforcement and the camera company itself if he's going to effect any change in this mindset.

Of course, now that it's been caught holding onto all of this data for nearly three years, the state police has finally purged its database of non-hit plate data and will be disposing of unrelated data within 24 hours going forward. But the fact is that these policies should have been in place before the PD deployed the cameras. This incident does very little to alleviate fears of future abuses. Like our nation's intelligence agencies, the standard MO for deployment of law enforcement technology is to exploit the system until caught and forced to operate within belatedly-applied confines.







Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Any Mouse, Oct 10th, 2013 @ 4:58pm

    Product idea

    A plate scanner that has a list of "hits" stored on the device itself. This list could be pulled from a central database of stolen cars/unpaid tickets/etc. that the police are already maintaining.

    This would have a few benefits. Officers could use the scanner in areas with no connectivity and the scanner could automatically discard none hits instantly. There would be no need for large databases and the associated costs.

    Sadly such a device would never be made in today's world.

     

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  2.  
    identicon
    Doug Wack, Oct 10th, 2013 @ 6:32pm

    Sounds like a good idea, just need to get it implemented country wide would be the problem.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    icon
    corwin155 (profile), Oct 10th, 2013 @ 6:46pm

    political enemies

    You have to know your political enemies, now that NSA says its ok to spy on Everyone

     

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  4.  
    icon
    corwin155 (profile), Oct 10th, 2013 @ 6:55pm

    Police State

    United Police State of America , dont worry we NOT targeting you even tho your just your Average Law abiding citizen.
    BUT we know who you are and WE will be watching!

     

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  5.  
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    velox (profile), Oct 10th, 2013 @ 7:50pm

    proof of deletion??

    What guarantee to the citizens of Virginia have that an officer hasn't squirreled away this data on a thumb-drive somewhere -- even though the 'non-hits' have been officially purged from PD databases.

     

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  6.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 10th, 2013 @ 11:35pm

    Just yesterday

    Right here I was reading about the general public being able to record the police, after all it's "in public view", so what is so wrong with police recording people in those very same public places ?

    You have no expectation of privacy when you are in public. So what is the problem again?

    I tell you what, if you cry about your rights to record police in public, it's not a good look when you do not expect the POLICE or ANYONE recording YOU in a public setting.

    Just because they are the police, does not mean they give up the same rights as you demand as well.

    Is there any laws on the books stating that police are not allowed to view peoples activity in public ? or record it ?

    It really does appear from reading TD that it is all "THEM AGAINST US", no one can EVER do anything right by you, no matter what they do, as far as you are concerned it's automatically bad. But no matter what you do it's always "good".

    So you recording "THEM" is good, "THEM" recording you is BAD.

    Anything the NSA does is bad, Anything the NSA says is a lie.

    NSA collecting data bad, because it's THEM !!!
    Google collecting even more sensitive data... GOOD, because Google (by paying TD) is "US".

    It does appear the good people at TD are always conducting a tight rope act.

    Always trying to spin the stories presented as a "them" and "us" argument, clearly this divisive nature of TD is what makes it so massively popular, for the seemingly small readership of this site.

    At least you have enough people to buy into the "them" and "us" arguments.

    It's always better to frame your arguments into a THEM and US argument, especially when you are not "one of THEM" !

     

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  7.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 10th, 2013 @ 11:42pm

    Re: Just yesterday

    Missing the point as usual.

    If policemen behave badly it behooves any civic-minded individual to record footage of them for evidence.

    Citizens would not have much point videoing policemen behaving normally, and it's stupid of you to think that 24-hour citizen-driven surveillance of cops is what anyone is driving at here. Conversely, it wouldn't make sense for cops to randomly scoop up licence plate numbers just because. It's as bad as taking photos of numbers to tie to an alleged speeding incident to find which random sucker to fine.

    But I suppose nuances like these escape the toilet-powered brain of an [sic] EFFECIENT solar panel engineer.

     

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  8.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 11th, 2013 @ 12:16am

    Re: Re: Just yesterday

    you do understand that is what license plates ARE FOR don't you? Possibly not. But it's in a public space, it's their right (AND DUTY) to enforce the law.

    It makes perfect sense to scoop up license plates when it is know a (probably significant) proportion of them to be operating illegally in some way.

    Citizens would not have much point videoing policemen behaving normally

    It's not about 'intent' it's about your rights, you claim to have a right to video in public, that right does not only apply to you.
    It's got nothing to do with the activity or whether you consider it "normal" or not, it's about your right, AND EVERYONE ELSES RIGHT to record video in public.

    There is nothing stopping YOU or me setting up a camera and recording every license plate of every car going past your house on the PUBLIC street.

    If you have that right to do that, why would you expect the police not to have that right as well ?

    You are in public, you have no expectation of privacy.
    (it's Electronics/Systems Engineer as well).

    Q. Is it the engineer that is efficient or the 'solar panel' ?

    I might be toilet powered, but at least I am not potty mouthed. But I don't want to say too much, I don't want to add to your bitter and twisted and rather sad existence of envy. Don't worry one day you might achieve something of note.

     

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  9.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 11th, 2013 @ 1:58am

    'these policies should have been in place before the PD deployed the cameras'

    let's face it, since when do law enforcement of any place and any size take notice of the law? there are cases every year of what the various forces are up to and been doing, but they ignore everything just because they can, as long as they're not found out. the wrong doing is that they seem to think that they can do whatever they like, that the 1 case per year that was solved or helped to be solved because of the use (illegally) of some technology or process, justifies what they did. if ALL branches of law enforcement, from the smallest to the largest were compelled to uphold the law themselves, it would be a good start. as it is, when law enforcement have the opinion that they can do as they please, and only the 'public' are bound by rules, things are only going to get worse. we read about law enforcement abuses against the public every day. the use of cameras being the most prominent.

     

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  10.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 11th, 2013 @ 1:59am

    Re: Re: Re: Just yesterday

    A probably significant portion of drivers at a legal political rally were going to commit crimes? Really? That's what you're claiming? This isn't Occupy Wall Street, you dumb fuck; there is no basis to assume that anyone at a political rally, let alone a massive number, is going there for criminal activity. Unless listening to politicians in a group has somehow become a crime in Australia.

    Not surprisingly you pretty much reveal to have not read the article, or understand the point. It's not ethical to video people under the intention of eventually pinning them to something they didn't commit. Which is clearly what was going to happen until these cops got caught red-handed and had to rapidly change their policies before the backlash.

    Then again, you're the same tard that claimed multiple times over the years that police beating up anyone should have the right to be unfilmed and unpunished. Maybe one day when they manhandle one of your solar panels they'll think different.

     

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  11.  
    icon
    Not an Electronic Rodent (profile), Oct 11th, 2013 @ 5:30am

    Re: Just yesterday

    Right here I was reading about the general public being able to record the police, after all it's "in public view", so what is so wrong with police recording people in those very same public places ?
    I'm curious, do you actually believe this or are you just contradicting Techdirt automatically?
    For example, you seem to be the same person who is usually the first to jump the other way when it comes to constitutional protections and rail endlessly about how those protections only protect one from governmental interference. If so it seems a huge blind spot to not see the difference between a private citizen videotaping something and a police force doing so does it not?

    In addition, you seem to be carefully ignoring the first paragraph about how there's no problem collecting the data, just what is done with it afterwards.

    You also completely avoided any mention of whether it's a good thing for the government to know exactly where you were and who you are associating with and to keep this data indefinitely whether you have broken any laws or not.

    Now I'm not a legal scholar, lawyer or even American, but I seem to remember that this sort of thing is frowned upon by that constitution thing there. So it seems a little odd that you'd ignore what was, after all, the main point of the article to focus on a largely made-up semantic argument of your own.

     

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  12.  
    icon
    BentFranklin (profile), Oct 11th, 2013 @ 5:45am

    In the past, police were given a few license plate numbers every day to look out for, and they visually scanned the plates they came across each day to try to find one of them. If that's legal, then doing the same thing "on a computer" shouldn't be a problem, and in fact I expect the police to automate menial tasks the same as every other business sector. See the recent discussion on TechDirt about bank tellers and ATMs.

    Saving those plate reads in a database is a different story. That ain't right.

     

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  13.  
    icon
    Ninja (profile), Oct 11th, 2013 @ 5:50am

    Considering there are only two parties and both are more of the same....

     

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  14.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 11th, 2013 @ 2:14pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Just yesterday

    What crime again were the people at Occupy Wall Street committing other than exercising their first amendment right to assemble in peaceful protest?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 11th, 2013 @ 6:50pm

    Re: Re: Just yesterday

    you seem to be the same person who is usually the first to jump the other way when it comes to constitutional protections and rail endlessly about how those protections only protect one from governmental interference.

    You appear to want to make up my opinion for me !! thanks but no thanks. You don't get to comment on what my opinion might or might not be, but feel free to comment on your opinion all you like.

    more important is 'DO YOU UNDERSTAND IT' ??

    "Now I'm not a legal scholar, lawyer or even American, but I seem to remember that this sort of thing is frowned upon by that constitution thing there."

    Then you do need to actually READ that constitution you refer too, and find out what it actually DOES SAY!

    Car tag plates are DESIGNED for the purpose of being viewed by law enforcement to determine if you vehicle is being operated legally. They have a right AND responsibility to view those plates on ALL cars in public, THEN determine if rules or laws are being broken. It's their job, it's what you pay them for, get over it.

    A license place is not a personal affect, you DO NOT EVEN OWN IT !!!

    Plates are an aid to policing, they are there for that purpose, if a police force can police more efficiently, with less people and find more crime that is the system working as intended. I am sure the police are allowed to use technology to effectively police just as much as you.

     

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  16.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 11th, 2013 @ 6:55pm

    Re: Re: Just yesterday

    "If policemen behave badly it behooves any civic-minded individual to record footage of them for evidence."

    If a citizen behave badly it behoves any civic-minded police office to record the details for evidence.

    Yesterday, it was a police office attending a scene to take a police report, he was told he would be recorded.

    What was his bad behaviour that prompted the recording in the first place ?

    you see how you argument falls apart ?

    He behaved 'badly' AFTER he was being recorded, NOT BEFORE !!!

    Same applies to the police, again it's public space, in that space you have no expectation of privacy. Live with it, oh, you already do.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 11th, 2013 @ 6:57pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Just yesterday

    probably no crime, what were they charged for ?
    and what were they convicted of ?

    What they were charged for and convicted of doing would be an indication of what crimes they have committed, I would think.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 11th, 2013 @ 7:08pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Just yesterday

    " It's not ethical to video people under the intention of eventually pinning them to something they didn't commit. "

    But it is ethical to video everything with the intent of pinning them on crimes they are COMMITTING. Such as unregistered cars, stolen cars, suspended drivers, speeding and so on.

    So you think at some time in the future people are going to be charged with driving their car to the Presidents inauguration ?

    You do understand there is a difference to recording license plates and 'pinning crimes on people' 'in the future', or whatever other confused conspiracy theory you want to buy into. It's amazing how some people here can extrapolate everything to the extreme.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 12th, 2013 @ 5:51pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Just yesterday

    And those charges were proven? The police seem to have been sitting on that data for three years until they were caught redhanded. Nice try, but no go.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 12th, 2013 @ 5:53pm

    Re: Re: Re: Just yesterday

    Maybe because we've seen enough recent cases of police overstepping their bounds? Hell, one police chief said that officer uniforms would start carrying surveillance cameras. Abuse your privileges enough and you get penalized for it. Tough tits.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
    icon
    Not an Electronic Rodent (profile), Oct 13th, 2013 @ 2:59pm

    Re: Re: Re: Just yesterday

    You appear to want to make up my opinion for me !
    No, just attempting to identify you from semantic content given a lack of other useful information to go on and I note that you also avoided the point no matter who you are.
    Then you do need to actually READ that constitution you refer too, and find out what it actually DOES SAY!
    I will when your government does. I also not that again you avoided answering the point.

    And as for the rest of it about what a license plate is or isn't, I note yet again that you avoid discussing anywhere near the point raised in favour of a tangential issue of your own manufacture so now I'm even more sure you're who I think you are and realise I'm wasting my time asking questions.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
    identicon
    Brent Vincenzes, Oct 24th, 2013 @ 10:20pm

    Virginia Defense Attorney...going to look into this more

    As a defense attorney in Northern Virginia, I have handled cases involving officers pulling drivers over upon a scan of a plate. But sometimes, the scan returns old, or incorrect data, which then leads to an otherwise unjustified stop. Officers can't just stop a person for no reason. This will be the subject of further research and investigation on my part. Thanks for this article. Sorry I can't elaborate, but maybe in due time.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
    identicon
    Anna Lindemann, Jan 28th, 2014 @ 3:39am

    Intent matters

    The fact that a device is used to scan the plates at various political rallies is not troubling. In fact, if the purpose is to quickly scan the sea of license plates in a protective sweep, I imagine it is an extremely efficient way of making sure that peaceful rally-goers and the candidates themselves are in a safe environment. However, when the intent of law enforcement is to stockpile information for the future when they might not have such a compelling interest, and handing it over to federal law enforcement, an entirely different concern arises. Instead, it seems like the Virginia and other local state police are taking advantage of a loophole to do the FBI's dirty work. Not too classy, Virginia.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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