LA CAÑADA, Calif. (Nov. 3, 2016) – Pole mounted high speed automatic license plate readers may be coming to a Los Angeles suburb.
The La Cañada Public Safety Commission voted unanimously to investigate the possibility of installing an ALPR system after a meeting last week, despite privacy concerns.
The proposed fix cameras would photograph the license plate of every vehicle that passes by. The system would then store the image the images on a cloud-based server connected to a database of all registered vehicles. The system can scan up to 100 license plates per minute and can read a plate on a car traveling up to 100 miles per hour.
Proponents of the cameras say they will help police investigate burglaries in the city. According to Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department data, La Cañada Flintridge experience 106 commercial and residential burglaries in 2015.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department already operates two vehicle mounted ALPRs in the city.
Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 1 of this year, those two units scanned 185,376 license plates throughout the city. The recorded images were immediately sent to a cloud-based server that feeds a database that can be drawn upon when deputies are investigating incidents that may involve a vehicle plate or description.
The proposed fixed ALPRs would function in the same manner, but would store the plate number, the date and time, and the vehicle location of every vehicle that travels down the street in the system.
Public Safety Commission division manager Peter Castro downplayed privacy concerns, according to the LA Times.
“Privacy concerns come up here, such as government tracking individuals traveling throughout the city,” Castro said. He added that the units only read characters on a license plate and store it on a secure server. Law enforcement can only access that information if needed to investigate a crime or if there is a “hit” on a plate. Castro added that the state has requirements about server security to protect information.
This massive database of license plate and location information would certainly make it possible for police to track vehicles across the city, and to infer a great deal of information about the owner of a vehicle. Some privacy advocates say police can actually gain more information from location data then actually listening in on phone calls or reading emails. The “need to investigate” remains a nebulous and flexible criteria. Currently, California law does not limit law enforcement access to stored ALPR data.
The existence of ALPR databases also creates the potential for expanding the federal surveillance state.
IMPACT ON FEDERAL PROGRAMS
As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the federal government, via the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) tracks the location of millions of vehicles. They’ve engaged in this for nearly eight years, all without a warrant, or even public notice of the policy.
State and local law enforcement agencies operate most of these tracking systems, often paid for by federal grant money. The DEA then taps into the local database to track the whereabouts of millions of people – for the simple act of driving – without having to operate a huge network itself.
Limiting license plate tracking data comes from state and local law enforcement, takes an improtant step toward blocking that program. The feds can’t access data that doesn’t exist.
Law enforcement generally configures ALPRs to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location of vehicles. But according to newly disclosed records obtained by the ACLU via a Freedom of Information Act request, the DEA is also captures photographs of drivers and their passengers.
According to the ACLU:
“One internal 2009 DEA communication stated clearly that the license plate program can provide “the requester” with images that “may include vehicle license plate numbers (front and/or rear), photos of visible vehicle occupants [redacted] and a front and rear overall view of the vehicle.” Clearly showing that occupant photos are not an occasional, accidental byproduct of the technology, but one that is intentionally being cultivated, a 2011 email states that the DEA’s system has the ability to store “up to 10 photos per vehicle transaction including 4 occupant photos.”
With the FBI rolling out facial a nationwide recognition program last fall, and the federal government building biometric databases, the fact that the feds can potentially access stored photographs of drivers and passengers, along with detailed location data, magnifies the privacy concerns surrounding ALPRs.