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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  1. icon
    LJSeinfeld (profile), 4 Sep 2014 @ 8:50am

    Goose v. Gander...

    I wonder what police agencies would think if people started putting similar devices on their private property / personal vehicles that photographed police vehicles, geo-tagged them, and uploaded the data to a website?

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