In early May, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) were hit with a lawsuit over their refusal to release information the agencies had collected through the use of license plate scanners.
Plate scanners are small devices mounted atop police patrol vehicles. They digitally “read” license plates continuously, with no need for direct input from the officer inside the car. They scan all the time; and, if so configured, they can accompany each scan with a color photograph of the vehicle, its occupant(s) and, of course, the license plate itself.
There are no Federal or State laws — or even standards and guidelines — that require police departments to handle the data they collect in any specific fashion, and there are no restrictions that limit the sharing of data between agencies across all levels of law enforcement: local, Federal and State. If law enforcement wants to compile data over a period of years, never disposing of any of it, they can.
Using only the data collected from license plate scanners, police can piece together a very accurate narrative — complete with pictures — of who you are, what you drive, who accompanies you, where you go, how you dress — even whether you have any obnoxious political or ephemeral bumper stickers.
In areas where patrol cars are equipped with scanners, individual vehicles are recurrently scanned with amazing frequency.
An incredible story by the Center for Investigative Reporting describes the experience of Michael Katz-Lacabe, a San Leandro, Calif., resident who works in the computer security consulting field. Leery of the city’s adoption of the license plate scanners in 2008, he asked the city for a record of all the times his car had been scanned and photographed:
The results shocked him.
The paperback-size device, installed on the outside of police cars, can log thousands of license plates in an eight-hour patrol shift. Katz-Lacabe said it had photographed his two cars on 112 occasions, including one image from 2009 that shows him and his daughters stepping out of his Toyota Prius in their driveway.
That photograph, Katz-Lacabe said, made him “frightened and concerned about the magnitude of police surveillance and data collection.” The single patrol car in San Leandro equipped with a plate reader had logged his car once a week on average, photographing his license plate and documenting the time and location.
License plate scans are held for as long as the agency responsible for handling the information wants to hold them. And the independent third-party tech companies they hire to deploy and catalog the data are few enough, and capable enough, to be employed by layers of government, from the State of California to the CIA to the Department of Defense. You can see the potential (likely already very fully realized) for cross-pollination these separate-but-related government agreements hold. Mega-banks hold contracts with the same companies that develop the license plate technology, using numbers and location-based data-gathering as an analytical tool.
Precipitating the Los Angeles police lawsuit were the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which last year had requested one week’s worth of license plate scanning records from the LAPD and LASD. Both agencies refused, claiming it formed a component in the body of evidence used in ongoing police investigations.
But this is not probable-cause evidence. This is full-scale surveillance of people who’ve done nothing wrong; people who aren’t suspects. The ACLU predicts there will be license plate scanners in use by 85 percent of the Nation’s law enforcement agencies, and that law enforcement is already pursuing the development of a proprietary, Google-style search engine to unify and link all motorist data, enabling police everywhere to know your motoring habits simply by tapping on a keyboard and hitting “return.”