Using the Freedom of Information Act, Fairfax resident Harrison Neal discovered that the Fairfax County Police Department (FCPD) had used license plate readers (LPRs) to document the movements of his vehicle as he traveled throughout his community. What crime did they suspect him of committing? Not one. His movements and the movements of an unknown number of other Virginia residents are tracked because many Virginia law enforcement departments, including his, think they can track everyone’s movements, just in case something happens.
Today, Mr. Neal took a stand against this abusive law enforcement practice. His request is simple. He’d like to travel around his community without his police department tracking, storing, and sharing his vehicle’s movements with other law enforcement agencies. He’s not asking for the FCPD to stop using LPRs for active criminal investigations or for Amber or Blue Alerts. In those cases, LPRs serve a valuable law enforcement purpose. He’s just asking that the FCPD stop using LPRs to collect everyone else’s data too.
Mr. Neal’s case is much bigger than one police department’s use of LPRs. It’s about our relationship with our government – about ensuring that we know more about the government than it knows about us.
Over 10 years ago the General Assembly passed the Virginia Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act(Data Act). The Data Act makes clear that “[i]nformation shall not be collected unless the need for it has been clearly established in advance.” This means that unless part of an active criminal investigation, law enforcement must document the need to collect someone’s personal information in advance and show its relevance to meeting that need. The law requires government agencies to implement a policy that ensures the data is kept and disseminated only for the purpose for which it is collected. This requirement applies to the collection of personal information regardless of what type of surveillance technology used by law enforcement to collect the information.
Law enforcement use of LPRs to compile vast databases on people's movements in their vehicles is precisely the kind of intrusive practice the Data Act was meant to prevent. As we’ve written before:
by compiling a history of your vehicle’s movements in local and regional databases, law enforcement can use algorithms to predict your movements. That’s because many of us are creatures of habit – we go to work, shop, and worship at a certain time each week. These databases also allow law enforcement to determine our friends, politics, and medical conditions. How? Well, did you drive your car to a political protest or an abortion provider? Then an LPR may have photographed your license in the abortion provider’s parking lot or at the site of a political protest. In addition, law enforcement can build a “digital fence” around target events (such as a political meeting) to track every vehicle that comes and goes. Thus, while law enforcement cannot force a political group to hand over its membership list, it can skirt this prohibition by deploying LPRs around the political group’s meeting location. Though this isn’t as precise as getting a group’s membership list, it still gives law enforcement a picture of who participates in the meetings. And, if law enforcement does this during each political meeting, it will also have a good idea of who the more active members are. It’s that simple.If this is not “personal information,” then I don’t know what is.
Our complaint is clear. We’re not asking law enforcement to throw away valuable investigative tools. We’re just asking them to follow the law, which does not include a blank check to engage in mass surveillance.
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