FOIA Request On Effectiveness Of License Plate Readers Greeted With A Blank Stare By Virginia Police Department

from the I'm-not-familiar-with-the-sort-of-thing-you're-asking-for dept

Law enforcement agencies are generally pretty happy with their automatic license plate readers. It allows them to harvest millions of plate/location records without having to exit their vehicles, much less slow them down. It also allows them to spring from their cruisers with guns out and force non-car thieves into submissive positions while they perform the sort of due diligence that should have been completed long before the cops/guns exited their respective holders.

What they don’t seem to like is anyone asking questions about the massive databases they’re compiling or whether they’ve bothered to institute any minimization/privacy policies. When questioned, they usually talk about what a great tool it is for crime-fighting, even if said tool contains millions of useless photos entirely unrelated to criminal activity. Some even claim that every single photo in the database is integral to ongoing investigations and therefore cannot be subjected to minimization procedures, much less the pesky FOIA requests of surveilled citizens.

And sometimes, these agencies are so sure they like the tech that they can’t even be bothered to determine whether it’s actually doing anything to assist in the business of law enforcement. Stephen Gutowski at the Capitol City Project recently asked the Fairfax County, VA police about the effectiveness of its license plate photo database and got this ‘FILE NOT FOUND’ statement in response.

This letter is in response to your FOIA request in which you requested the number of ALPR records Fairfax County currently has on file. This number is constantly fluctuating, but as of 05/20/2014 at 1003 hours there were 2,731,429 reads in the system.

You further requested any available metric the county uses to determine the system’s effectiveness. It was found that the Fairfax County Police Department does not possess any such responsive materials based on the information you requested.

The assumption here is that the system works. The Fairfax County PD occasionally posts arrests linked to ALPR database hits and… well, beyond that, the PD draws a blank. Presumably a handful of arrests justifies a multi-million image-and-location photo database. But this lack of self-assessment shouldn’t be acceptable, not for an agency that has abused its technology in the past.

It came to light late last year that the Fairfax PD trolled political rallies to grab more plate data, racking up nearly 70,000 photos in five days. This abuse prompted a local lawmaker to push legislation aimed at severely limiting, if not completely eradicating, ALPR readers in his district. Not a bad idea, as far it goes.

Virginia law enforcement agencies aren’t going to be happy with this move and they’ll be able to mobilize a pretty powerful opposition. But these are the same entities that tried to bury info on plate readers back in 2009, simply because they felt the public might try to get the system shut down if they knew what was going on. But the lack of controls or any gauge of the system’s effectiveness shouldn’t be allowed to escape unnoticed, because the failure to monitor error rates and hits can result in catastrophic consequences for citizens whose plates trigger false hits — something this system does at twice the rate of recoveries.

The license plate readers demonstrated a high error rate. Four ALPR vehicles used in Fairfax County over the course of five nights in February 2009 scanned 69,281 vehicles. The camera database produced twelve bogus hits and recovered four stolen vehicles, for a recovery rate of 0.6 percent and an error rate of 1.7 percent.

The technology can be used responsibly, but law enforcement agencies with tough minimization policies are almost nonexistent. And as we’ve seen twice in the last month alone, officers relying on faulty data aren’t making an effort to verify database hits before attempting to effect arrests. Someone’s going to be hurt or killed because of bad data, and hardly anyone in law enforcement seems to be concerned. If they did, strict policies on verification and disposal of non-hit data would be the rule, rather than the exception.

Filed Under: , , , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “FOIA Request On Effectiveness Of License Plate Readers Greeted With A Blank Stare By Virginia Police Department”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
27 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

The thought process involved:

‘These new toys are awesome! We got menus, features all over the place, shiny new pieces of tech to play around with… best of all, we didn’t have to pay a cent for it, and there’s no rules attached to it, we can do whatever we want with the stuff!

… What do you mean ‘How effective is it at stopping crime? Who cares about that, I’m sure it’s great, even without any real ‘evidence’ to support the assumption, now go away, we’ve got new toys to play with!’

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Conspiracy Theory

Don’t y’all get it yet? This is the ‘trickle-down’ theory of war preparedness. I know, this is crazy, everybody asks what ‘war’? The answer is: 1) the War on Drugs, 2) the War on Iraq, Afghanistan, The Taliban, Al Queda, terrorists, 3) Gangs, 4) protesters; all amorphous and without defined end. And the process is, A) the Feds get involved, B) the States get involved, C) Counties get involved D) Municipalities get involved with used military equipment that the Government gets to take off their balance sheet, cause it is on ‘loan’ (purchased for free) by Podunk, USA who all have SWAT teams and assault vehicles for their 250 person communities, and they are all hunting terrorist whom are overseas…unless the terrorists are us…

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Effectiveness better left unknown

Possible response: “What an idiotitic question: You might as well ask why the sky is blue.

“If we tested to find out how effective the system was, we might find out it’s not; and then where would we be?

“Questioning it all the time, that’s where. Better to presume it’s perfect, so we don’t have any silly doubts about using it in court.”

Geno0wl (profile) says:

The first Paragraph is very misleading

As you stated the number of plates read per second is huge, and the number of “hits” is also a healthy number. But the number of times somebody has been approached by a mistake with guns drawn is less than a handful. AKA statistically very small.
Which means “most” officers are doing their jobs correctly.
Honestly I really don’t like such extreme hyperbole from techdirt. “We” don’t need that in our news, we get it enough from the major news networks.

TestPilotDummy says:

Re: The first Paragraph is very misleading

“But the number of times somebody has been approached by a mistake with guns drawn is less than a handful. AKA statistically very small.”

Sounds exactly like an Alcoholic rationalizing their habit.

“The number of times I actually dropped that whiskey bottle when crashing my motorcycle while drunk is actually ‘kind of LOW.’ ”

Or

“The people that have died from Taser Heart attack is kind of Low too.”

Or

The amount of TSA agents who actually got colostomy bag slop on their skin is kind of low, even though they wear gloves.

It don’t matter if MOST officers do anything correctly, if the INSTRUCTIONS they have been TRAINED with are unconstitutional and MOSSAD WARLIKE!!

Let me tell ya what buddy, I know how I COULD abuse this data. It don’t matter if you want to call it SECRET, you want to have only NDA’s; it doesn’t change the FACT I KNOW what I can do. It doesn’t MATTER what you THINK you are keeping SECRET/ Hidden, I KNOW how I could take your ASS right out with it. I know how I could RIP you off with it. I could SET YOU up with it, I can RAPE you with it. And I CAN KILL with it. So exactly WHAT needs to be secret again? The fact that LaW ENFORCEMENT isn’t obeying their OATHS or the LAWS of this LAND.

THERES YOUR PROBLEM.

very similar to this nukes secrecy. What the hell’s secret about a nuke, we know EXACTLY what they do!

Arrest the god damn Police chief for breaking his god damn OATH!!!

Michael (profile) says:

Re: The first Paragraph is very misleading

the number of times somebody has been approached by a mistake with guns drawn is less than a handful

The problem with this is that the number of mistaken plate reads leading to officers approaching with firearms pointed at the occupants can and should be zero. I say can because in any instance in which the police officers feel their lives are in danger approaching a suspect, manual verification of the license plate number is not only possible, but more prudent. The officers and occupants of the vehicle would be safer if the police didn’t just assume the plate reader was accurate.

Now, pulling someone over with an expired registration or an unpaid ticket on a bad license plate read – that seems like it may be ok, but even in those instances, checking the plate manually makes sense – what if the reader misread the plate number, is sending you to someone presumably didn’t pay a parking ticket in 1983, but a correct reading of the plate would have revealed that the owner of the vehicle is actually a known drug and gun runner and likely armed?

I think you are correct that the majority of the police officers actually do this. That is also a good reason to call out the asshats that don’t – they make everyone unsafe and make good officers look bad by tainting the reputation of the law enforcement agencies. Since it is nearly impossible to get an officer punished or fired for being bad at their job, we should at least try to shame them into trying to get better.

Whatever (profile) says:

Re: Re: The first Paragraph is very misleading

The problem with this is that the number of mistaken plate reads leading to officers approaching with firearms pointed at the occupants can and should be zero.

Police officers are human, not robots, and will sometimes make mistakes. The computers sometimes make a mistake. Statistically it’s an incredibly small number, you are many times more likely to die during routine surgery than to have the police misread your plate and approach you SWAT team style for a take down.

I agree with the original poster, it’s interesting information but it’s hyperbole. It’s focusing on exceptional cases and attempting to make it look commonplace, which is just not true.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: The first Paragraph is very misleading

Police officers are human, not robots, and will sometimes make mistakes. The computers sometimes make a mistake

I agree, and any instance of the plate-reader mis-reading a plate AND the officer mis-reading it is totally understandable. The problem I see is that all of the instances I have seen involved the automated system mis-reading a plate and then a police officer NOT DOING THEIR JOB and checking the plate before acting.

Not doing a simple verification of a license plate before putting the vehicle occupant, bystanders, and the officers in danger is nothing short of lazy.

RD says:

Re: Re: Re: The first Paragraph is very misleading

“Police officers are human, not robots, and will sometimes make mistakes. The computers sometimes make a mistake.”

Yes but the problem is, unlike the rest of us regular humans, when a police officer, backed by the full weight and authority of the state, makes a mistake, people die, with little to no recourse or punishment (or hell, even ANY correction) to the “mistake.”

Whatever (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 The first Paragraph is very misleading

Please enlighten us: Exactly how many people have died as a result of poorly read plates? Hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands?

How many died in the same time frame because someone forgot to stop at a stop sign or ran a red light or fell asleep at the wheel?

Oh, wait, people only die when the police are involved!

RD says:

Re: The first Paragraph is very misleading

“As you stated the number of plates read per second is huge, and the number of “hits” is also a healthy number. But the number of times somebody has been approached by a mistake with guns drawn is less than a handful. AKA statistically very small.
Which means “most” officers are doing their jobs correctly.
Honestly I really don’t like such extreme hyperbole from techdirt. “We” don’t need that in our news, we get it enough from the major news networks.”

Oh yes, and becuase it works relatively ok now, we shouldn’t criticize it. I mean, come on, its not like this stuff ever gets abused, misused, taken out of context. I mean, really, it’s not like this will ever get expanded beyond its original scope and used in ways never intended. You don’t really believe that, do you? (hand wave away) nonsense, the police are incourruptible and always work for the good of the public and the citizens they are sworn to protect. You shouldn’t be complaining and spreading “bad feelings” about such a virtuous and upright organization. Your hyperbole and “warnings” are unnecessary in such a perfect State system.

TestPilotDummy says:

ALPR to Stingray

The reason Virginia Police, and Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones don’t want to answer these questions is because they are BREAKING THEIR OATH TO THE US CONSTITUTION!!!!

We shouldn’t be bothering with questions, these bastards undermining everything this country stands for, these backstabbing treasonous pieces of work need Indictments, Trials.

Because you can do something with a piece of technology doesn’t mean you just CAN..

The NDA (secrecy crap) needs to go as well. There’s no possible way the public can keep track of what these LEGALIZED MAFIA GANGS (Called Law Enforcement) when they have barrier after barrier, delay, lies, courts to mask and hide the fact they are OATH BREAKING SCUMBAGS THAT BELONG IN JAIL THEMSELVES!!!

James G. Witte (profile) says:

take a page from the movies

In the first episode of SeaQuest season 1 or season 2, the Capt(Roy Scheider) was speeding on his motorcycle and a pop-up/hidden scanner scanned his barcode license plate and then sent him a text message that his text to speech app read for him thanking him for paying his fine. Not that I want to make it easier to give me a ticket, but why has no one thought about adding a barcode to each plate that makes it easier to read our plates? Just use http://www.barcodesinc.com/generator/index.php to translate the plate’s numbers and letters into a bar code.

Anonymous Coward says:

Had a cop speak to a class of mine, who confirmed they don’t recover any more stolen cars using automated plate readers than they do when they just give beat cops a paper list of stolen car plate numbers every day. In a way it feels like that can’t be true, because omg computers!!! technology!!!, but readers don’t take into account typical behavior patterns that car thieves display, and the cops can’t have plate readers set up everywhere.

Geno0wl (profile) says:

Of course the number of times a cop approaches a person accidentally with a gun drawn should be zero. But no reasonable person would ever say that even with proper training and an alteration of procedures/culture would that ever be truly zero. SHIT HAPPENS.
My point is that exaggerating the relativity of events like that helps nobody and can turn people off to the rest of your message when they know your lead in is false.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I have not yet seen a case of the automated reader mis-reading a plate AND the officers involved manually mis-reading the plate and then approaching the vehicle with guns drawn.

This, I would say, would be TOTALLY reasonable. Mistakes happen.

The problem right now is that the officers are relying on the automated system that we know as at least a 1% error rate. 1% does not sound like much, but when you consider the number of auto theft stops in this country every day, having guns drawn on the wrong person 1 out of 100 times when it could nearly always be avoided is just dumb or plain lazy.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...
Loading...