There are many legitimate uses for license plate data -- tracking auto theft or vehicles used in the commission of crimes. Collection of plate and location data by automatic license plate readers can be troublesome in terms of privacy, but this can usually be mitigated by the prompt disposal of data unrelated to criminal activity. Unfortunately, many states are operating license plate readers without privacy safeguards in place, or are simply building massive databases with no disposal plans for "non-hit" plate data.
Over in Virginia, state police are doing everything wrong when it comes to responsibly deploying automatic license plate readers. It's grabbing massive amounts of license plate and location data, holding onto the info for multiple years, and targeting drivers engaged in First Amendment-protected activity.
From 2010 until last spring, the Virginia State Police (VSP) maintained a massive database of license plates that allowed them to pinpoint the locations of millions of cars on particular dates and times. Even more disturbing, the agency used automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) to collect information about political activities of law-abiding people. The VSP recorded the license plates of vehicles attending President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, as well as campaign rallies for Obama and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin...
The chilling effects of the state's activity are obvious.
[B]y creating and maintaining a database of millions of license plates and targeting political activity, the VSP crossed well over the line from legitimate law enforcement to oppressive surveillance. In the cases of the campaign rallies and the 2009 inauguration, the VSP collected personally identifying information on drivers solely because those drivers were heading to a political event. These drivers were not suspected of or connected to any crime — their only offense was practicing their First Amendment rights to speak freely and assemble peacefully.
This wasn't just a local operation. Documents obtained by the ACLU via a FOIA request
show the Virginia state police operated in conjunction with the FBI to utilize its database to search for "hits" against the state's collected license plate data.
Also included in the documents are two promotional slideshows from ELSAG, the license plate reader supplier. These detail the many advantages of its system, including inputs for facial recognition cameras. When not putting suspended/uninsured drivers into the same list of criminals as the DC snipers and human traffickers, the slideshow is bragging about how many records it's able to collect and retain (50 million in NYC alone without losing a single record!). It also details the exploits of Arizona DPS officer David "Army of ONE" Callister, who was able to rack up 1.1 million "reads" in 16 months.
Unsurprisingly, there's not a single slide in the deck that deals with privacy concerns or the disposal of "non-hit" data. The second deck goes even further, encouraging LEOs to "drive up the numbers" (rack up as many hits as possible). It states: "Read 1000 tags, get a stolen, read 6,000 get an arrest." Does anyone other than ELSAG and law enforcement officers like those odds?
Now, were Virginia police looking to hassle politically-minded citizens? Probably not. Targeting both sides of the political aisle indicates the department's intention wasn't necessarily
to chill free speech. This looks more like a crime of opportunity. Thousands of cars headed to (or parked at) single locations was simply too much data to pass up. But the underlying effect remains: even if this wasn't
politically motivated, the state police have the technology in place to target any gathering it finds undesirable.
Although it comes far too late to head off the state's collection endeavors, the State Attorney has issued a statement condemning this use of LPRs.
In a strong opinion, Cuccinelli explained that the use of ALPRs for “passive” collection of information violates Virginia’s Government Data Collection and Dissemination Act. That is, law enforcement may use ALPRs to search for specific vehicles suspected of involvement in criminal activity, but it may not simply collect and save data on thousands of vehicles for which there is no grounds for suspicion.
This statement runs directly contrary to the selling points of the LPRs, at least according to ELSAG. In its pitch, more scans
equals more hits
, and that's all the justification most officers are going to need. This isn't targeted technology. This is mass scanning hardware that relies on thousands of reads in order to land a direct hit, and it's backed by a company that brags about a single officer racking up over a million scans on his own. These two viewpoints clash badly, and as strongly as the AG feels about this, he's got an uphill battle against law enforcement and the camera company itself if he's going to effect any change in this mindset.
Of course, now that it's been caught holding onto all of this data for nearly three years, the state police has finally purged its database of non-hit plate data and will be disposing of unrelated data within 24 hours going forward. But the fact is that these policies should have been in place before
the PD deployed the cameras. This incident does very little to alleviate fears of future abuses. Like our nation's intelligence agencies, the standard MO for deployment of law enforcement technology is to exploit the system until caught and forced to operate within belatedly-applied confines.