The ongoing battle between the EFF and law enforcement agencies over the use, control and disposal of automatic license plate reader data has produced some seriously strange responses from law enforcement officials.
One person's request for anonymized data from the LAPD's database resulted in this bizarre response last year.
When one citizen requested anonymized ALPR data from the LA County Sheriff earlier this month via a public records request, his request was denied primarily on confidentiality grounds. Again, he wanted anonymous data, but was denied based on confidentiality.
So, even anonymized data is confidential. That in itself is a strange assertion (or would be, if obfuscation wasn't the normal state of affairs in citizen-law enforcement interactions). Supporters of ALPRs claim the data is not "personal," being that it only tracks a vehicle and not a person, but, somehow, it still can't be released without sacrificing "confidentiality."
The EFF (along with the ACLU) is attempting to pry some license plate data free from this same police department
. The LAPD recently filed a brief stating its reasons for denying the group's FOIA request and made another surprising argument.
The agencies took a novel approach in the briefs they filed in EFF and the ACLU of Southern California’s California Public Records Act lawsuit seeking a week’s worth of Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR) data. They have argued that “All [license plate] data is investigatory.” The fact that it may never be associated with a specific crime doesn’t matter.
The LAPD uses the "investigative records" exemption to justify withholding the data. Here's where it first explains its reasoning…
The ALPR data sought in this case- electronic records consisting of vehicles' license plates, and the date, time and location those license plates were captured by the Department's ALPR cameras constitute "records of. . .investigations conducted by ... any local police agency" which fall squarely under this statutory exemption.
And here's where it flat out tells the court that all
license plate data is "under investigation."
Releasing the subject ALPR data held by the Department would likewise "expose to the public the very sensitive investigative stages of determining whether a crime has been committed." All ALPR data is investigatory - regardless of whether a license plate scan results in an immediate "hit" because, for instance, the vehicle may be stolen, the subject of an "Amber Alert," or operated by an individual with an outstanding arrest warrant... The very process of checking license plates against various law enforcement lists, whether done manually by the officer or automatically through ALPR technology, is intrinsically investigatory - to determine whether a crime may have been committed. The mere fact that ALPR data is routinely gathered and may not --initially or ever-- be associated with a specific crime is not determinative of its investigative nature.
There it is, Los Angeles drivers. Simply by driving, you are "under investigation." You may not even need to drive. You could never leave your house and still be "under investigation." As the EFF points out, this isn't how the law is supposed to work.
This argument is completely counter to our criminal justice system, in which we assume law enforcement will not conduct an investigation unless there are some indicia of criminal activity. In fact, the Fourth Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution exactly to prevent law enforcement from conducting mass, suspicionless investigations under “general warrants” that targeted no specific person or place and never expired...
[A]s we argued in the Reply brief we filed in the case last Friday, the accumulation of information merely because it might be useful in some unspecified case in the future certainly is not an “investigation” within any reasonable meaning of the word.
This is the prevailing law enforcement mentality on display: take publicly available data (as they argue in favor of ALPRs, license plate/location data has no expectation of privacy), lock it up, hold onto it for as long as possible, and when the public wants a peek behind the curtain, claim doing so would compromise investigations and harm the public.
This argument gives us little hope that law enforcement agencies are going to be in any hurry to install tough data disposal guidelines. As far as both the LAPD and LA Sheriff's Department are concerned, this data has investigative uses that preclude timely disposal or, indeed, any disposal at all. If you start eliminating "non-hit" data, you might toss out some plates that might
aid in some theoretical investigation in the future.
These assertions are made even as the agencies acknowledge the privacy implications of ALPRs.
In another interesting turn in the case, both agencies fully acknowledged the privacy issues implicated by the collection of license plate data.
LAPD stated in its brief:
[T]he privacy implications of disclosure [of license plate data] are substantial. Members of the public would be justifiably concerned about LAPD releasing information regarding the specific locations of their vehicles on specific dates and times. . . . LAPD is not only asserting vehicle owners’ privacy interests. It is recognizing that those interests are grounded in federal and state law, particularly the California Constitution. Maintaining the confidentiality of ALPR data is critical . . . in relation to protecting individual citizens’ privacy interests”
But when these agencies say "privacy," they're only using it as an angle to prevent the public from seeing the collected data. Confidentiality is again cited as a reason to keep the public from looking at ostensibly public records. They're not concerned with any drivers' privacy, only in keeping the wall propped up between the public and law enforcement.
The LASD even admits that other law enforcement tools can be used to connect "anonymous" license plates with people, and use the combined info to track people as they move around Los Angeles. But this bit of clarity isn't accompanied by any push for better privacy protections.
The agencies use the fact that ALPR data collection impacts privacy to argue that—although they should still be allowed to collect this information and store it for years—they should not have to disclose any of it to the public.
There's nothing in this for citizens. If license plate data has "no expectation of privacy," the police should have no problem with turning over anonymized data, much less records pertaining directly to the requester. But the law enforcement community continues to use a double-standard that allows it to circumvent the annoyance of limiting itself to pertinent data while maintaining a wall of opacity to further distance the public from all the data it's gathering on them.