EFF, ACLU sue police agencies for information on automatic license plate readers

By End the Lie

Automated License Plate Readers in Compton, California (Image credit: Presentation uploaded by the EFF)

Automated License Plate Readers in Compton, California (Image credit: Presentation uploaded by the EFF)

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California are suing the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department in order to get information on the use of Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs).

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License plate readers have come under scrutiny in the past in Boston, Massachusetts and in Virginia, where they were used to record attendees at political rallies.

In July of last year, the ACLU released documents on ALPRs showing that they collect data on large swaths of the population, often holding on to it for an indeterminate length of time.

In the latest joint EFF-ACLU lawsuit the groups argue that law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles are improperly withholding records related to their use of ALPRs.

The groups argued that the departments are keeping important information about the technology from public scrutiny.

ALPRs are high-speed infrared and color cameras mounted on patrol cars and poles. They also record the license plate, time, date and location of every passing car.

The fact that they can record GPS coordinates is especially troubling to the EFF and ACLU. They say that it raises “serious privacy concerns” because it can reveal “a great deal of personal information.”

The groups want to know how the departments are actually using the technology, which at this point is uncertain. They have requested a week’s worth of data collected by the departments’ ALPRs along with the policies and procedures outlining how the data is used.

Only after obtaining this information, the groups say, can informed public debate occur on what limits should be placed on the use of ALPRs.

The departments are some of the largest gatherers of license plate information via ALPRs, according to LA Weekly.

“The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles Police Department are two of the biggest gatherers of automatic license plate recognition information,” LA Weekly reports. “Local police agencies have logged more than 160 million data points — a massive database of the movements of millions of drivers in Southern California.”

That means that on average, every car registered in Los Angeles has been scanned an average of 22 times.

However, since the automated scanning is random, some cars have been scanned many times while others haven’t been scanned at all.

In a post written by the EFF’s Jennifer Lynch and the ACLU’s Peter Bibring, the groups point out a few examples of how ALPRs can reveal the history of a person’s movement and associations:

In August 2012, the Minneapolis Star Tribune published a map (see right) displaying the 41 locations where license plate readers had recorded Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak’s car in the preceding year. And in Boston, investigative reporters with MuckRock and Boston Globe found that the Boston Police were tracking cars in certain neighborhoods more than others. This data is ripe for abuse; in 1998, a Washington, D.C. police officer “pleaded guilty to extortion after looking up the plates of vehicles near a gay bar and blackmailing the vehicle owners.”

So far Arkansas, California, Maine, New Hampshire, Utah and Vermont have laws limiting how ALPRs can be used.

Five other states had bills recently introduced that would also limit use.

The groups state that some legislation, like the law in New Hampshire that bans all license plate readers by both police and private companies, is good. However, the California law places no limits on ALPR use for the majority of law enforcement agencies in the state.

The groups are now fighting to get more information about the use of ALPRs in Los Angeles, without which they say “the very people whose whereabouts are being recorded cannot know if their rights are being infringed nor challenge policies that inadequately protect their privacy.”

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One Response to EFF, ACLU sue police agencies for information on automatic license plate readers

  1. Jay Kenney January 30, 2014 at 10:06 AM

    This kind of incursion regarding civil liberties. These license plate scanners defy freedom of assembly. I’m so angry about this, I sorry if I am not not making sense. We need citizen groups with veto power over police departments and public services plans to implement policy and application of cyber technologies.

    The citizen groups/panels I am proposing would not be composed of elected members, but selected for time-limited positions much in the same manner jurors are selected.

    This continuing erosion of our civil liberties is appalling. And only we citizens are responsible for this predicament in which we find ourselves.

    Reply

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