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California Town Getting Automatic License Plate Readers; Contributing to Federal Surveillance-State

Automatic license plate readers continue to proliferate in California, adding to a web of license plate tracking weaving itself across the country.

Last month, the San Francisco Bay area city of Danville became the latest California municipality to obtain ALPRs. The town council unanimously approved a proposal to deploy the license plate tracking technology on more than a dozen street corners and six patrol cars back on June 21, according to DanvilleSanRamon.com.

“Aimed at helping investigators solve and deter crimes, the effort to bring automated license plate readers and companion situational awareness cameras (sitcams) to Danville comes with almost $840,000 in initial costs, according to police chief Steve Simpkins. The program is expected to be fully implemented by the end of the year.”

No citizens commented on the proposal before the vote, but police chief Steve Simpkins was there to pitch the need for permanent surveillance of city residents and visitors.

“From law enforcement’s perspective, license plate cameras enhance crime prevention and criminal investigations by first and foremost discouraging criminals, alerting us to stolen or wanted vehicles and providing investigators with data on vehicles leaving the scene of crimes.”

According to DanvilleSanRamon.com. the chief also downplayed privacy issues.

The police chief tried to allay potential privacy concerns, telling the council the program is intended to serve as investigative tool after crimes take place and only law enforcement investigators will have access to the data.

“Once a crime occurred, we have the ability to go back and look and get a lead to work on, where we wouldn’t have had that lead before,” he added.

The chief’s comments seem to indicate that the cameras will photograph and store license plate information on every vehicle that passes by in one massive database. Otherwise, how would cops be able to identify a vehicle after a crime? It seems unlikely the cameras will come equipped with magic chips that activate them only when a “criminals” passes by.

This raises a slew of questions. What criteria will law enforcement use to authorize access to this database? How widely will they share the database with other law enforcement agencies? And most importantly, do you really trust police to limit access to such a database to criminal investigations only?

The ability to track every person all over Danville would make Big Brother shudder with delight. It is also highly likely data from Danville’s ALPRs will end up in a giant federal database.

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. 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.

Since a majority of federal license plate tracking data comes from state and local law enforcement, each additional local database potentially adds to the federal surveillance system.

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.

State and local government need to get serious about putting limits on ALPRs, especially on the storage of information. These systems not only threaten privacy in your towns, they enable an every-growing federal surveillance. We can stop it in its tracks simply by taking action at the local level.