Privacy and civil liberties advocates won a small victory this week as the California Supreme Court ruled that license plate data secretly gathered from millions of drivers can not be kept secret.
On Thursday the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California by confirming that law enforcement cannot keep secret about license plate data gathered from millions of unwitting drivers. The court ruled that license plate data was gathered indiscriminately and not as part of an investigation targeted at a particular crime. Thus the records can not be classified as records related to an ongoing police investigation.
The EFF and ACLU originally filed their lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff Department in early 2014. The groups sought information related to how the law enforcement agencies are using Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPR) to gather information. The two watchdog agencies successfully argued that the two departments are illegally keeping quiet on how the information is used. According to the ACLU, LAPD and the LASD collect, on average, three million plate scans every week and have a database of half a billion records.
Automatic License Plate Readers are used to gather license plate, time, date and location, that can be used to create a detailed map of what individuals are doing. The devices can be attached to light poles, or toll booths, as well as on top of or inside law enforcement vehicles. In 2012 the Wall Street Journal reported that the five previous years the Department of Homeland Security distributed over $50 million in grants to fund the acquisition of license plate readers.
“This is a big win for transparency in California,” attorney Peter Bibring, director of police practices at the ACLU of Southern California said of the Supreme Court decision. “The Supreme Court recognized that California’s sweeping public records exemption for police investigations doesn’t cover mass collection of data by police, like the automated scanning of license plates in this case. The Court also recognized that mere speculation by police on the harms that might result from releasing information can’t defeat the public’s strong interest in understanding how police surveillance impacts privacy.”
The court sent the case back to the trial court to decide how much of the data can made public and how much will be redacted. The ruling should provide the public with a precedent regarding future cases dealing with mass, indiscriminate data collection.
“Location data like this, that’s collected on innocent drivers, reveals sensitive information about where they have been and when, whether that’s their home, their doctor’s office, or their house of worship,” warned EFF Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been working to expose the growing use of ALPRs for the last several years. In 2015, the ACLU revealed the existence of a national program operated by the Drug Enforcement Administration which collects and analyzes license plate information. According to heavily redacted documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act Requests, the DEA has gathered as many as 343 million records in the National License Plate Recognition program. The initiative allows the DEA to connect its Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs) and collected data with that of law enforcement agencies around the nation. Using the Department of Homeland Security’s Fusion Centers this program only adds to the growing list of data collection by the US government.
One document shows the DEA has at least 100 license plate readers in eight states, including California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and New Jersey. Law enforcement in Southern California’s San Diego and Imperial Counties and New Jersey are among the agencies providing the DEA with data. The program opened to local and state partners in 2009.
The Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) is one of the federal agencies working with the DEA. The documents also reveal the program mining license plate reader data “to identify travel patterns.” The DEA has established 100 license plate readers in eight states, including California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and New Jersey. A 2010 document also explains that the DEA had by then set up 41 plate reader monitoring stations throughout Texas, New Mexico, and California.
In addition to the DEA and DHS, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in license plate reader technology. Emails released through a Freedom of Information Act request by the ACLU show internal discussion on surveillance concerns related to the network of cameras that are used to capture and store license plate information.
In the Summer of 2015 the ACLU also identified the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) as a source of hundreds of thousands of dollars to local and state law enforcement agencies for purchasing ALPRs.
“The NHTSA is funding license plate readers for highway safety purposes only, but it’s far from clear how law enforcement agencies are interpreting this and whether they are using the funding to buy license plate readers for non-safety uses,” the ACLU wrote. “The NHTSA should not be funding police technology for surveillance purposes and it should not let law enforcement apply for funding to decrease traffic fatalities and then turn around and use those funds to track people not suspected of any crime.”
These revelations should lead every American with a pulse to ask important questions about the quickly dwindling expectations of privacy. Is there realistically anything we can do to combat the ever present eyes and ears of Big Brother and Sister?
Derrick Broze is an investigative journalist and liberty activist. He is the Lead Investigative Reporter for ActivistPost.com and the founder of the TheConsciousResistance.com. Follow him on Twitter. Derrick is the author of three books: The Conscious Resistance: Reflections on Anarchy and Spirituality and Finding Freedom in an Age of Confusion, Vol. 1 and Finding Freedom in an Age of Confusion, Vol. 2
Derrick is available for interviews. Please contact [email protected]
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