Judge Says Los Angeles Law Enforcement Doesn't Need To Turn Over License Plate Reader Data

from the a-secret-repository-of-public-data dept

Los Angeles law enforcement has been battling privacy activists seeking access to license plate data for over a year now. The plate and location data scooped up by the city’s many automatic license plate readers is considered fair game by law enforcement because visible license plates obviously don’t carry any sort of expectation of privacy.

This argument only goes one way though. Back in July of last year, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Dept. refused to hand over plate data, citing confidentiality concerns. While using one of side of its mouth to argue that plates aren’t personally identifiable information, the LASD used the other side to claim that releasing the data was impossible because even anonymized, non-personal data was too sensitive for public release. Let that argument soak in for a bit, because that’s basically what Judge James Challant said in his opinion preventing the release of the data:

“The [LPR] data contains hot list comparisons, the disclosure of which could greatly harm a criminal investigation,” Superior Court Judge James Chalfant wrote in his 18-page decision. “It also would reveal patrol patterns which could compromise ongoing investigations, and even fixed point data could undermine investigations. Disclosure could also be used by a criminal to find and harm a third party. Balanced against these harms is the interest in ascertaining law enforcement abuse of the ALPR system and a general understanding of the picture law enforcement receives of an individual from the system, unsupported by any evidence as to how well the ALPR data will show this information. The balancing works in favor of non-disclosure.”

So, harvesting license plates and location data is no different than walking around with a camera snapping photos of vehicles driving or parked on public streets. But this very public collection method is somehow also a protected method that could be undermined by the release of data. While some patrol patterns might be ascertained from a week’s worth of data, it’s unlikely that such a short selection would reveal much. The judge also could have asked for a redacted release, with plates/locations tied to ongoing investigations blacked out, but instead he simply bought into law enforcement’s arguments. (Caveat: Los Angeles law enforcement has argued that every plate collected is “relevant” to its investigations.)

The idea that a criminal could use the database to “find and harm someone” is the most ridiculous statement. (Although the circular reasoning about whether or not the undisclosed information will show abuse by law enforcement comes close. If you can’t see it, you can’t really look for signs of abuse.) License plates are public information. Anyone with eyes could “find and harm someone” by looking for license plates. (And — again — I thought this data wasn’t “personally identifiable.”) As long as the vehicle isn’t parked inside, anyone can see its plate and location. While a dump of license plate data would make it easier, it’s not as though withholding the information will have any noticeable effect on that sort of criminal behavior.

The end result is the expected: law enforcement gets access to anything considered “public information” and the public gets nothing in return but second-hand concerns about compromising investigations. It’s the same argument, whether it’s local law enforcement or the NSA. The public can’t logically make the argument that plate readers are a violation of privacy but it has every right to expect that its law enforcement agencies are handling data responsibly and can be held accountable if they aren’t. Humoring arguments like “all data is relevant” and “public data is confidential” doesn’t achieve that end.

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Comments on “Judge Says Los Angeles Law Enforcement Doesn't Need To Turn Over License Plate Reader Data”

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32 Comments
zip says:

incorporate for license-plate anonymity?

It seems like it would be smart if privacy-minded people would get together and form corporations or trusts that would technically own all their cars. So the car’s license plate, when looked up, would show the corporate address, not the actual name & residence of the driver/owner.

That sort of thing should be legal if set up properly. Anyone who drives a rental or “company car” already gets that treatment, so why can’t the rest of us enjoy the same level of anonymity?

That One Guy (profile) says:

So public data, supposedly harmless data at that(or at least that’s how they defend collecting it), suddenly becomes private and highly dangerous once the police have it? Someone’s been taking cues from the NSA it seems.

Of course, I bet the ‘dangerous’ part has nothing to do with the data itself, and more to do with what exactly they are doing with it, and the back-lash that could occur if people knew what they were doing.

Whatever (profile) says:

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When all you have is paranoia, everything looks like a conspiracy. Thus we have a near endless stream of Cushing posts.

Seriously though. That the data itself is obtained in the public does not in any mean that the methods used need to be public as well. They were obtained in public, end discussion.

The police are correct here. Disclosing how they obtain this information (such as location, date, time, vehicle used, and so on) would pretty much doom the enterprise. As an example, if they are using a plate reader on a certain freeway entrance, those who choose to hide themselves may purposely avoid it if they know it is there.

Police are under no legal obligation to inform the public of the type of unmarked cars they use, or their location at any given time. They need not report where a police officer will be at any given time. Therefore, there is no reason to specify how and when public observation of license plates will occur, nor how it will be done.

It doesn’t make sense any other way.

Griever says:

Re: Re:

Ehh, i’m pretty sure the original reason for using random letters and numbers on license plates was to help increase privacy for the vehicle owner from both members of the public AND the police. Thus, this whole automated license plate reader fiasco is merely yet ANOTHER situation in which technology has outgrown the intent of a system specifically designed around the technological limitations of a specific era and as a result of technological progress the intent behind the system has been totally undermined.

The police are exploiting the arbitrage inherent in the displacement of laws designed to protect the individual and the forward march of unforeseen technology. The laws need to be updated to reflect currently realities and until they are the court should ban these cameras, making this lawsuit a moot point.

Whatever (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Quite simply, there is no basis in law to ban them. Police are using tools in public areas, nothing more and nothing less. There is no inherent right to move about in public without being noticed or seen.

If the police could achieve the same result with much more man power plus paper and pencils, then any argument against the technology is silly. In many places, license plate scanners are used in public areas to determine cars who have not paid their plate fee or are otherwise not permitted on the roadways, allowing police to be much more effective in these areas. Yes, there are exceptional error cases, but the benefits to the public (keeping unsafe / unlicensed / illegal drivers and vehicles off the roads) generally outweighs the costs.

License plates generally are not random numbers and letters, they are usually a pattern and have everything to do with making it possible to identify a single vehicle. Almost every plate system has a reason or plan, it’s not just random.

Griever says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“Quite simply, there is no basis in law to ban them.”

We disagree. The purpose of issuing license plates was never to endow the police the ability or authority to track everyone’s movements. The fact that they can do so is incidental and an unfortunate byproduct of the system. Given that, the courts would be well within their rights to ban them outright for not being in line with the intent of the law.

“If the police could achieve the same result with much more man power plus paper and pencils, then any argument against the technology is silly.”

Except that the police can’t do this given their limited resources, which is precisely the point. Many laws were originally built around these limitations and are now outdated as a result. The underlying assumptions have all been blown to hell which necessitates a revision to the code.

“In many places, license plate scanners are used in public areas to determine cars who have not paid their plate fee or are otherwise not permitted on the roadways, allowing police to be much more effective in these areas. Yes, there are exceptional error cases, but the benefits to the public (keeping unsafe / unlicensed / illegal drivers and vehicles off the roads) generally outweighs the costs.”

My privacy and liberty trumps your “feeling” of safety. That is freedom vs tyranny 101 my friend.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

That people in a particular place can note my presence when I am in that place is no threat to my privacy, because lots of people have a little bit of information about me, but none have a full picture of what I am doing.
However feeding all observations into a common database is a threat to privacy, as it tracks people going about their everyday business, giving a capability that is growing ever closer to having a cop follow you about whenever you are in public.

Whatever (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

Yet if everyone got together and legally exchanged their information, they would have a full record of where you were in public. If a single piece of public data is legal, then a dozen or a thousand is equally legal. Scale doesn’t matter.

It’s the nature of the beast – public means public, and any law that would limit the police ability to note things in a public space would almost certainly have a negative effect on their doing their jobs.

rapnel (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

Yet if everyone got together and legally exchanged their information, they would have a full record of where you were in public. If a single piece of public data is legal, then a dozen or a thousand is equally legal. Scale doesn’t matter.

“Everyone” does not. The police are. They would subsequently call these public data private, for their own devices. Not only is this collection, storage, tracking, analysis and dissemination of many, many public data points but all of these separate data points are readily strung together to form much more complete pictures of movements of the public (i.e. the people). Therefore scale most certainly does matter and your attempts to masquerade the whole as bearing no further significance than the one is disingenuous at best.

any law that would limit the police ability to note things in a public space would almost certainly have a negative effect on their doing their jobs.

“Note” does not equate to complete compilations of the movements of the public. That you would seem to want to justify that breach as all but meaningless indicates to me that you can’t, in the least, be taken seriously on this matter.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“Quite simply, there is no basis in law to ban them”

This is the problem we’re really complaining about. Fortunately, laws can be changed. In the meantime, we can and should make a big fuss about the activity regardless of the fact that it’s legal. Just because something is legal doesn’t mean we can’t strenuously object to it.

David says:

The courts (and laws) are missing a point

Generally, courts work from the third party doctrine: if information is disclosed or in the public in any kind of manner, it is fair game for collection and evaluation by government agencies.

But that’s like saying since there is no problem with storing some grams of fissionable material in a lead box, nobody should be concerned about putting a few dozen kilograms in a large lead box.

The problem with privacy is that there is a critical mass of information about a person that can be fused into something more telling or meaningful than the sum of its parts.

And that’s why the third party doctrine is a piece of crock. Just because I cannot lead a meaningful life without handing out individual dots of information does not mean that I am fine with someone other than me collecting and connecting all the dots. The connection of those dots is me, my personal life, and I am the one who gets to decide what meaning to give it or not.

Whatever (profile) says:

Re: The courts (and laws) are missing a point

The problem here is that what you are suggesting is that you want your privacy to extend into the public place. You want a version of the “right to be forgotten” as you move around in public spaces, in plain view of everyone.

It’s nothing to do with any third party doctrine, this is purely your actions while in a public place in plain view. You cannot change that reality without severely changing the balance between private and public spaces – and possibly gouging out everyone’s eyes too!

Gert-Jan says:

Re: Re: The courts (and laws) are missing a point

The problem here is that what you are suggesting is that you want your privacy to extend into the public place

David did not suggest any solution. If there is political will, then this is a solvable problem.

For example, in Europe when a customer provides personal information, the company collects this for a particular purpose, and is not allowed (without additional consent) to use it for another purpose.

Laws could be written in line with this, that you are not allowed to collect public information for some set of specifically defined purposes.

Bill Jackson (profile) says:

Desktop stalking

All you need is a girl’s plate number, search the data base for a month, find where she works, studies, parties etc.
If this girl is your ex-wife and there is a non-contact court order out, you can use this search to “accidentally go by her” with a defense that it was just a coincidence. Can also be used from crime stalking, as when the private security car is far away from the sjop you want to smash and grab.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: # 18 Desktop stalking

Amateur.

If you’re serious about stalking, you get one of those super-magnet transmitters (pay cash, wear a hoodie) that can’t be pulled off the car without industrial-grade hydraulics. Then you can gather all the information you want to without having gone to a public (but still monitored) listing of license plate data. Works for either the individual (sexist of you, by the way, to specify “girl” – amateur) or the security-mobile.

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