by Frank Knaack, Director of Public Policy and Communications
Yes, we’re talking about technology that is moving us toward the world envisioned in Minority Report, where algorithms become the foundation for “pre-crime” technology. In this case, we’re talking about automatic license plate readers (ALPRs).
First, what are ALPRs? As we’ve written before, ALPRs are small cameras that can be mounted to patrol cars or stationary objects like road signs. ALPRs take a photo of anything with text that comes into their view, but only store license plates images (and affix time and geolocation stamps to the image). When ALPRs are limited to searching for stolen vehicles or cars thought to be involved in a specific crime or emergency situation (as in an Amber Alert), they can be a useful and important tool for law enforcement. But, without policies in place before they are deployed, ALPRs pose a serious threat to our privacy, safety, and First Amendment protected political activity.
How can ALPRs predict my movements? By compiling a history of your vehicle’s movements, law enforcement can use algorithms to predict where you’ll be … sometimes, better than we can predict ourselves. That’s because many of us are creatures of habit – we go to work, shop, and worship at a certain time each week. Thus, by deploying ALPRs throughout a community, law enforcement can paint a picture of our movements and understand our patterns. And, it gets worse – by tracking our vehicle’s movements, law enforcement can also determine our friends, politics, and medical conditions. How? Well, did you drive your car to a political protest or an abortion provider? Then an ALPR may have photographed your license in the abortion provider’s parking lot or at the site of a political protest. It’s that simple.
Law enforcement is not only passively collecting this data, as described above, but is also building “digital fences” 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 ALPRs 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. The Virginia State Police used this very technique when it set up ALPRs to record the license plate of every vehicle that crossed a Potomac River bridge into DC on the day of President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, as well as cars parked near campaign rallies for Obama and then vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. And, if it is done over a longer term period, it also allows law enforcement to measure the level of commitment of individual group members.
As Denise Green, a 47 year-old African American woman, learned firsthand, public safety is also jeopardized when we allow law enforcement to blindly rely on ALPRs. While driving through San Francisco, an ALPR flagged Ms. Green’s car as stolen, and officers began to follow her. And, instead of visually confirming that the flagged license plate matched the stolen vehicle’s plate, an officer in pursuit only confirmed the first three characters on the plate and radioed the description Ms. Green’s car. After a few blocks, a number of SFPD officers converged on Ms. Green’s car and, with guns drawn, pulled her from the vehicle and ordered her to kneel (with guns still pointed at her).
There was, however, one major problem with the police action. The ALPR had misread Ms. Green’s license plate – it had flagged the wrong car. Had the officer visually confirmed the match, the officer would have quickly noticed that Ms. Green drove a burgundy Lexis and not a grey GMC truck, the stolen vehicle in question. This case reminds us that technology is imperfect, and that ALPRs are just one tool that can aid law enforcement, but not a tool on which they can rely blindly.
Fortunately, we can ensure that ALPRs are used in a way that both protects our rights and protects public safety. Last year, then Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli issued an opinion advising that the “passive” use of ALPRs to create massive databases that allow our movements to be tracked violates Virginia’s Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act (the “Data Act”). The Data Act limits the types of personal information that government agencies may collect, store, and distribute and requires that there be an established “need” for the data before it is collected. This opinion led the Virginia State Police to cease using ALPRs for passive data collection and to purge its existing database of almost 8,000,000 license plate records, including records created by using ALPRs at political campaign events and rallies. But, despite the AG opinion, many Virginia law enforcement agencies continue to collect and store this information.
It’s time to rein in law enforcement – to ensure that all law enforcement and regulatory agencies in the Commonwealth protect the privacy of Virginians. And, your voice can make the difference – tell your local lawmakers to enact policies and ordinancnes that require law enforcement and regulatory agencies to seek authorization before acquiring ALPRs, require any use of ALPR’s by local agencies be strictly in accordance with state law as interpreted in the Attorney General’s opinion, and demand that individual law enforcement officers not substitute their judgment for a computer’s. Also, contact your local law enforcement agency to find out if they have records of where your vehicle has been and when – let them know that you are watching! It’s time to remind the government that in a democracy the citizens, not law enforcement, make the policy. It’s time to return to a time when we know more about government than government knows about us.
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