Terrorist-Fighting License Plate Readers Just Mobile Revenue Generators Cruising Poor Neighborhoods

from the gotta-spend-(public)-money-to-take-money-(from-the-public) dept

We know what automatic license plate readers are good for: collecting massive amounts (billions of records) of plate/location data housed by private companies and accessed by law enforcement for indefinite periods of time. What we don't know is how effective ALPRs are at fighting/investigating crime.

George Joseph at Citylab has done some digging into the effectiveness of license plate readers and hasn't found much that justifies the expense, much less the constant compilation of plate info.

Last month, the Bay Area’s UASI released ALPR data from the Central Marin Police Authority showing that only .02% of the nearly 4 million license plates tracked over October of 2015 through April of this year resulted in matches to any police “hot list” databases. The data indicate that zero “known or suspected terrorists” have been tracked using ALPRs, and that only a handful of other matches related to other hot-list criteria.

Why the mention of "terrorists?" Well, like most other high-tech law enforcement gear, the funding and deployment of these tools relies heavily on a narrative that never pans out: the neverending War on Terror. UASI stands for "Urban Areas Security Initiative" -- a DHS grant program meant to better equip law enforcement for handling terrorism/terrorists. To secure grants to pay for ALPRs, Stingrays, 1033 program supplies, etc., all law enforcement has to do is insert "because terrorism" somewhere in the requisition form. Existential angst -- and every government agency's natural desire to stay well-funded -- takes care of the rest.

But in reality, ALPRs aren't catching terrorists. They're not even catching dangerous criminals. Use of ALPRs has increased dramatically over the past decade, but there's not much to show for it other than millions upon millions of "non-hit" snapshots. Instead of bringing down terrorists, drug traffickers, auto theft rings, and kidnappers, ALPRs are being used to troll low-income neighborhoods. (Oakland, CA: Picture/data by Dave Maass, Jeremy Gillula, and EFF.)

Law enforcement officials continue to claim ALPRs are being used to target "major criminal activities." Maybe so, but there's been a troubling push by municipalities and private companies to turn plate readers into roaming revenue generators.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation found, several municipalities in Texas... have sparked controversy for allowing police to team up with private-sector companies to work like mobile debt collectors.

In places like Guadalupe County, the City of Orange, and the City of Kyle, Vigilant, a for-profit technology firm, gives police free license-plate readers and creates its own “hot list” for police, using police records on individuals with outstanding court fines. In exchange, police with license-plate readers identify drivers with outstanding fines during their patrols, offering them a trip to jail or the option to pay the original court fee (plus a 25 percent markup, all of which goes to Vigilant).

This budget/profit-driven approach leads directly to ALPRs spending a disproportionate amount of time roaming low-income neighborhoods where unpaid fines and fees are often more prevalent. What's touted as a high-tech solution to serious criminal activity is being used to collect on unpaid parking tickets and unregistered vehicles. DHS anti-terrorism dollars are being converted into city budget enhancers. The "hot lists" used to direct law enforcement activity are routing officers away from dangerous criminal activity and turning them into glorified meter maids and revenue agents. Who needs to worry about terrorists when low-level scofflaws with unpaid parking tickets are more likely to generate income on the spot?

This is what's being done with millions of records controlled by private companies and governed by a patchwork collection of inadequate minimization and data destruction policies. Rather than make cities safer, they're only serving to make cities slightly richer. And in doing so, ALPRs are making policing -- especially the sort that actually serves the community -- a dusty relic of a bygone era.

Filed Under: alpr, law enforcement, license plates, privacy, revenue generation


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Aug 2016 @ 3:22pm

    Re: But how do we beat them...

    You take a deep breath, remember that you are in public with no expectation of privacy, using a publicly owned resource, and accept the fact that you are being tracked.

    Stage two would be to get one for yourself and play with the data.

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