ACLU Presents Its Findings On License Plate Scanners, Most Of Which Is Bad News

from the more-haystacks,-fewer-needles dept

The ACLU has just released a report on the widespread use of license plate scanners by law enforcement agencies across the US. Culled from nearly 600 FOIA requests (and 26,000 pages of documents), the report shows that not only are license plate scanners widely deployed, but few police departments place any substantial restrictions on how they can be used.

The approach in Pittsburg, Calif., is typical: a police policy document there says that license plate readers can be used for “any routine patrol operation or criminal investigation,” adding, “reasonable suspicion or probable cause is not required.” While many police departments do prohibit police officers from using license plate readers for personal uses such as tracking friends, these are the only restrictions. As New York’s Scarsdale Police Department put it in one document, the use of license plate readers “is only limited by the officer’s imagination.”

This “deploy first, restrict later” approach seems to be the default when it comes to new law enforcement technology. As we’ve noted before, law enforcement agencies (both local and federal) have been utilizing drones for investigative and surveillance purposes, most without establishing ground rules or taking into consideration possible privacy issues.

The other issue is a lack of standardized rules controlling the collection, usage and retention of license plate data. The Minnesota State Patrol deletes all records after 48 hours, but it’s the exception. Most other agencies hold onto all data for anywhere from 90 days to 5 years. Responses from three agencies in Texas specified no end date, so until otherwise indicated, it’s presumed to be indefinite.

Why are these agencies holding on to this data for so long? And why so much of it? The information the ACLU received indicates that license plate “hits” make for a very small percentage of records retained.

For example, in Maryland, for every million plates read, only 47 (0.005 percent) were potentially associated with a stolen car or a person wanted for a serious crime. [Other examples: Burbank, IL – 0.3%, Rhinebeck, NY – 0.01%, High Point, NC – 0.08%.] Yet, the documents show that many police departments are storing – for long periods of time – huge numbers of records on scanned plates that do not return hits. For example, police in Jersey City, N.J., recorded 2.1 million plate reads last year. As of August 2012, Grapevine, Texas, had 2 million plate reads stored and Milpitas, Calif., had 4.7 million.

This is a concern for many reasons. First, storing millions of records on plates unrelated to criminal activity opens the door for potential abuse, as would any database of its size. One snapshot isn’t a problem, but multiple photos over an extended period of time turn plate scanners into tracking tools.

What can location data reveal about people? Trips to places of worship, political protests, or gun ranges can be powerful indicators of people’s beliefs. Is it really the government’s business how often you go to the drug store or liquor store, what doctors you visit, and the identities of your friends? I’m sure all of us can remember something from our past that could embarrass us. If the government comes to suspect you of something in 2020, should it have access to databases stretching back years that could dig up facts about you that previously went unnoticed?

Not only does this give law enforcement a pretty good indication of your habits, it also opens the door to misinterpretation. Someone traveling back and forth frequently from high crime areas might be assumed to be somehow involved with the criminal activity there. That’s just one example, but amassing non-specific data encourages investigators to begin “connecting dots” and inferring suspicious behavior where there is none. Finding patterns is something the brain does well, even if not encouraged. But not every pattern is truly a pattern, nor does every perceived pattern indicate something of significance. (See also: numerology.)

Of additional concern is the fact that some of this retained data isn’t in law enforcement hands at all.

License plate readers are used not only by police but also by private companies, which themselves make their data available to police with little or no oversight or privacy protections. One of these private databases, run by a company called Vigilant Solutions, holds over 800 million license plate location records and is used by over 2,200 law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The ACLU is calling for law enforcement agencies to adopt certain basic policies to ensure proper protection of license plate data, as well as recommending the retention period of non-suspect data be measured in days, rather than weeks or years.

License plate readers may be used by law enforcement agencies only to investigate hits and in other circumstances in which law enforcement agents reasonably believe that the plate data are relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation.

The government must not store data about innocent people for any lengthy period. Unless plate data has been flagged, retention periods should be measured in days or weeks, not months and certainly not years.

People should be able to find out if plate data of vehicles registered to them are contained in a law enforcement agency’s database.

Law enforcement agencies should not share license plate reader data with third parties that do not follow proper retention and access principles. They should also be transparent regarding with whom they share license plate reader data.

Any entity that uses license plate readers should be required to report its usage publicly on at least an annual basis.

What the ACLU is asking for isn’t overly-restrictive. In fact, what’s listed here seems to be a bare minimum, common sense approach to data collection and retention, one that law enforcement agencies should have had in place before deploying the plate scanners. There’s nothing about this that unduly binds law enforcement’s hands in utilizing these scanners for their intended purpose. All these policies would do is trim down the likelihood of abuse and prevent agencies from collecting data simply to be collecting data.

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Comments on “ACLU Presents Its Findings On License Plate Scanners, Most Of Which Is Bad News”

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crade (profile) says:

The whole point of requiring license plates is to track your car. If you have an issue with using license plates to track cars, it should be at that point.

Saying the percentage that end up finding stolen vehicles and important criminals is low is disingenuous, if you have a giant magnet that can pull needles out of a haystack for you, the percentage of needles to hay is not really important.

imho 🙂

pixelpusher220 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

No they aren’t. You need a way to identify something to track it. You don’t need to track it to identify it.

Having unique identifications on cars is a reasonable trade-off on privacy/being anonymous.

There is no compelling reason to track all cars 24-7. There are plenty of compelling reasons to require cars be identifiable.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Response to: crade on Jul 18th, 2013 @ 9:16am

Blanket tracking and identification are not the same. We identify and register all vehicles and license their drivers. No one gave anyone permission to store day to day location and movement data on everyone based on their lawful registration. Not only is this process in conflict with fourth amendment rights, it is a given that all information can be hacked if it is interesting enough for the effort. This info is a gold mine for thieves and extortionists, even those NOT in government service.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

When your car has been stolen and the police are looking for your plate number, they are tracking your car by it’s plate number. Once they identify it, they have found it.

You are not describing the tracking at issue here. First and foremost, in your example a crime was committed and a specific search is initiated using given identification. This is part of due process.

The act of searching for a specific perp in a specific situation like you describe is night and day compared with blanket, warrantless, daily scanning tracking of everyone everywhere.

crade (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

No, the blanket tracking of everyone everywhere is how they find the one they are looking for. They just had to do it less efficiently before with checkstops or by putting out the plate number and hoping someone see’s it and tells them or whatever, there is no due process involved, they check any license plate they feel like checking to see if that car was stolen, or involved in any crime or whatever. There is no due process required for them (or you) to see or write down someone’s license plate and / or investigate and find our where else that plate has been seen, if it was at a crime scene, or whether it has unpaid parking tickets or whatever. You don’t need any special due process to write down someone’s license plate number and where you saw it.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

You are confused. Without the scanners when they needed to find some car they’d issue police wide requests and the officers would keep an eye for the plates or cars matching a determined description. At no point data on all other cars was stored and available for later use which could include collating that data from multiple scanners allowing the building a profile of anyone.

Can you see the difference? If the scanners got data on the supposed criminals and let all the rest go it would be just like what you described. But that’s not the case.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:7 Re:

not how the practice itself is supposed to be wrong in general.

Compiling a database of all publicly available information results in a loss of privacy that is even greater than if someone has been assigned to follow you around 24 hours a day.

Each individual data point may be innocuous and publicly available, but in aggregate the effect is exactly the same as an unconstitutional violation of privacy. Since the results are the same, both actions are equally problematic.

pixelpusher220 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

“They just had to do it less efficiently before with checkstops or by putting out the plate number”

Yes, law enforcement is supposed to be ‘hard’. It’s the basic point of the Constitution, that we have inalienable rights that make it ‘inconvenient’ for the authorities to prosecute people.

Otherwise we should all wear 24/7 GPS, because, hey we might catch more criminals that way.

alternatives() says:

Re: Re: Re: Lets see if you believe what you say.

Identifying and tracking are inseperable

Only to people with “big data” fettishes.

Tell ya what, as the identifying is done in public and is otherwise public data, you’d not mind if TechDirt took up a collection and tracked your car an then published it on the internet?

That would be no problem for you – right?

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Identifying and tracking are inseperable

Not at all. They are mostly independent things, which overlap in certain use cases. As an earlier commenter pointed out, there is a one-way dependency in that you can’t track something without identifying it.

However, tracking something requires more than simple identification. it requires compiling a series of data points over time — in other words, it requires a lot more than just identification.

As an example: Intel microprocessors contain a unique serial number, so each processor can be identified. However, that does not mean each processor is being tracked — unless someone installs software to read the serial number and compile ongoing information about it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

When your car has been stolen and the police are looking for your plate number, they are tracking your car by it’s plate number.

If they are searching for your car they do not know where it is and they most certainly are not tracking it. Further they can only identify it by the license plate as they will be many cars of the same make,model and color about.

Michael Price (profile) says:

Re: Re:

But it’s not pulling needles out of haystacks, that’s the point. It’s one thing to try to justify a potentially intrusive system by it’s positive effects, it quite another to adopt it regardless of the lack of them. Any attack on our privacy should be met with counterattacks on all fronts, including questioning the effectiveness of the attack at it’s alleged aim.

Transmitte (profile) says:

LPR what if's?

Hrm, imagine if you’re a pizza delivery person who works in a not so great side of town and your tag gets flagged like 20-30 times a day for months on end. Police and other law enforcement agencies with access might consider this hard working person a criminal just cause their tag pops up at high intervals.

But you know later on(much later on) they would very quietly, if at, all admit they were wrong, but were doing the public bidding of following up on such a giant alleged criminal lead.

Anonymous Coward says:

the government in general and law enforcement in particular want to know everything about everyone. the frightening thing about this practice, as with other similar exercises on-going atm, is that yet again, things that were fought against and people died stopping are happening in a country that was once regarded as the bastion of freedom, the USA! what the hell is wrong with all those in positions of power? are they all so scared of something else happening akin to 9/11, are they scared of something happening to them personally or are they scared that the USA is going to be overrun by some communist or other country, destroying the way of life to which they have become accustomed?

David Good (profile) says:

The ACLU is just now figuring this out?

License plate data is available to lots of different types of people, not just police. Process servers, for example, can enter a license plate into the state database via a smart phone and get all sorts of information that one would hope would be private. And it’s not terribly difficult to become a process server.

This is so not news, because this has been going on for ages, and not just by police.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: The ACLU is just now figuring this out?

The difference here is that handing over ones license is an act of consent. More importantly however is that none of these processors get to take snapshots of your day to day movement… Which is the ‘tracking’ concern expressed here. Identification does not equal tracking.

Benjo (profile) says:

Another problem is

how this makes police officers more prone to laziness and acting on bias/prejudice/personal grudge. This is essentially a low-cost (relatively) location tracking system on the entire public.

I think I could be OK with it under a few conditions, none of which would make it any less useful for real police work:

a) No database queries without some type of warrant. You could extend this to be some type of location based warrant for crimes happening in an area without suspects (even this has the potential for abuse)

b) Logging of all database queries. This would hopefully prevent abuse and create a “paper trail” for law enforcement that are misusing the information

I’m sure this will never happen, and we’ll end up living in more and more of a police state. It’s honestly not the MOST disturbing news I’ve heard recently, which makes it all the more disturbing.

aldestrawk says:

Re: Another problem is

I must point out to you this is the same argument that the NSA is making. They collect data about everyone and stick it in a huge database but that’s OK they say because we need a warrant or subpoena to access the database for any particular person. The problem is that this process lends itself too easily to abuse. Foxes guarding the hen-house.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

So technology used to infringe upon copyright is ok, but technology used to fight crime is not.

Talk about misrepresenting the arguments!

Technology is neutral. Using technology to infringe on copyright is not “ok”, but using the same technology for other purposes is. Using technology to fight crime is ok, but using it for other purposes (such as widespread surveillance and routine tracking) is not.

h4x354x0r (profile) says:

Re: Re: One more reason to ride a bicycle

As a lifetime bicycle commuter with over a quarter million miles on my drivetrain(s), and having put plates on my bike myself as an experiment, I can tell you putting license plates on bicycles is an almost completely useless and wasteful government activity. Any city requiring bike plates is doing so to mainly just to discourage cycling, not for any real liability or safety issue.

Point is there are two facets of this. Besides the obvious privacy concerns of data retention and efforts to limit abuse in that arena, there’s also a whole world of pre-emptive evasion on the other side of the coin. Even if plates are on bicycles, nobody really cares about them, bothers to track them, or profiles riders.

One difference between the two is that I have immediate control and ability to implement the latter, whereas I would have to rely on others, resources far greater than my own, and a questionable legal system, to implement the former (and in the meantime I’m still playing their game, and obviously losing).

Simply avoiding driving cars isn’t exactly anarchy, but it effectively leans that way.

Anonymous Coward says:

If there’s ‘supposedly’ no difference between traditional aircraft and drones, then why is the US border patrol switching over to drones instead of piloted planes? Don’t say pilot safety, because I don’t think illegal immegrants carry shoulder mounted stinger missiles.

I can think of a few reasons.

1. Drones are cheaper, both in building cost and operational costs. Drone operators probably get payed lower wages than ‘real’ pilots too.

2. Drones can stay in the air much longer. Simply switch out drone operators every few hours, all without having to land the drone.

3. Easier to train people to fly drones, because they’re pretty much GPS auto-pilot aircraft.

Add all that up, and instead of having a few manned aircraft flying around, we now have a drone army flying around invading law-a-biding citizens privacy.

Ninja (profile) says:

My father was recently fined by a red light scanner. He was not moving, waiting to park in a reserved space in front of a bank because he needed to grab some money and go back to the hospital where my grandfather was terminally ill (in fact he died 12 hours later in the same day). Scanners have no human factor to weight if the penalty is justified. But I digress from the main point.

It makes sense to store all the data for 2 or 3 days and it sure would help with crimes. And even then law enforcement should only be able to request further retention if proven they entered with a request for a warrant to actually LOOK at the data. However, given that the Government seems to be incapable of doing it in a Constitutional way the scanners should be banned.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

However, given that the Government seems to be incapable of doing it in a Constitutional way the scanners should be banned.

Yup pretty much. I’d go further to say no person, no government in power is immune to corruption and power should be granted grudgingly and with an eye to the consequences of abuse.

aldestrawk says:

Re: Re:

From a recent EFF article:

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.?

The ACLU isn’t asking for scanners to be banned. What is really important is limiting the retention of such records in a database. This is all the more important because it is common for an individual law enforcement agencies database to be merged into the database for a regional fusion center.

aldestrawk says:

Re: Re:

The ACLU and EFF have a current lawsuit to gain access to 1 weeks worth of records in the LAPD and LA county sheriff’s database. This is being done under the California Public Records Act. There is a San Leandro, California man who successfully got records relating to his own cars via a California Public Records Act request.

bioforge (profile) says:

It's been happening, we just haven't realized

Interesting story, and a reason why I do not support these programs short of read and discard style programing. I lent my work truck(Ram 3500) to a buddy back in 09. I had just finished going cross country with a race car via I-10 to Georgia from California. My buddy needed the truck to move from an apt to a house. He stayed at one of those weekly suit hotels till he closed on the house. After he moved I picked my truck up. On my way home I was pulled over and questioned. When I asked why I was pulled over I was told I had a license plate light out(it was 3pm). Long story short truck was searched and I was cited for bs charges that were ultimately dropped. When I went to the DA’s office later to inquiry why I was truly pulled over I was informed my truck had been recorded through multiple states near the border and was then in a high drug flow area(my buddies old apt area). When I asked how they knew I went cross country, I was told they have a new plate tracking system that tracks vehicles and flags those in high crime areas. I didn’t think much of it then because while annoying it seemed like a good idea, but here in 2013 it sure is a funny thing to wonder about.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: It's been happening, we just haven't realized

At least you got an answer to your “how” question.

I once witnessed a severe accident involving a drunk driver, and my statement and contact information was taken by a cop on the scene. I was subpenaed to appear as a witness at his trial.

A month later (before the trial), I moved to a different town. The very first week I had my new place, I got a letter from the court system in my old town informing me the trial had been rescheduled.

For the life of me, I have no idea how they knew that I moved and what my new address was. I had a month overlap where I had both places at the same time, and had not yet forwarded my mail or moved any of my services. The utilities in the new place weren’t in even my name. I asked how they found out where I was, but never got anything like an answer.

It still creeps me out to no end.

John says:

I wonder how government would react

I wonder how government would react to everyone sending, every time they see a government agent, or one of their vehicles, a report to an online database, where anyone could look up their location and know which vehicles or agents are within a six block area?

Would they suddenly decide that it is unconstitutional?

Butch (profile) says:

Here's my story

On a road trip to California to visit family, my partner and I were stopped as we made the turn from I44 to I40 in Oklahoma City because I (allegedly) violated a city ordinance that required me to (as the officer put it) drive at the speed limit in the left lane. (Yes, that’s what he actually said). As you make that turn the first sign you see is “through traffic keep left”, so of course I stayed left, expecting I might have to exit left. After grilling both me and my partner about whether we were married (we’re two men), asking us where we were going, whether we were employed, how long we were staying there, why we weren’t flying there etc etc) the officer gave me warning ticket for “driving unnecessarily slowly”. Interestingly, he commented that driving to California was “a long trip” and we would “probably be stopped two or three times at least”. I told him I’d never been stopped before in my 40 years of driving, and thought that comment was a little strange. Four hours later, as we crossed the Texas panhandle, I saw a cruiser by the side of the road and signaled left as I moved over to avoid passing next to him. Within a minute he raced passed our car as if in pursuit of the guy ahead of us, then slammed on the brakes as if he’d discovered something, then pulled behind me and put his lights on. This time I was told I’d been stopped because my left front tire had touched the center line before my turn signals turn on (I kid you not – such a serious infraction requires police action!). Once again both of us were grilled about our trip, whether we were employed, etc etc. Both officers, I should add, were civil enough (other than the fact that asking about the details of our trip or our personal relationship had nothing to do with my alleged driving infractions). I was issued another warning. I can only conclude that the first stop resulted in the license plate of our rental vehicle being put into the OKC tracking system, and was then immediately shared with Texas. If so, this really should be of concern. Not only can this result in repeated harrassment, but as the article mentions, the police and government now have a vast tracking ability on the movements of Americans who drive. I’m only glad I was in a rental car. Frankly though, I won’t be returning to either Texas or Oklahoma if I can avoid it. And I pity the person who rents that car next.

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