MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. (May 2, 2016) – Last month, the Manhattan Beach City Council approved a measure to fund a network of automatic license plate reader (ALPR) cameras that would scan every vehicle at seven entry points into the city. State legislation could curb such intrusive use of surveillance technology.

According to the Beach Reporter, the cameras would flag any vehicle reported as stolen, or whose owner is wanted in a criminal investigation. Police Chief Eve Irvine told the paper authorities will not monitor video feeds, but would use specific footage to locate suspect vehicles or to “reactively solve crimes.”

The system will cost around $400,000

“Unless needed long term for investigations, footage will be deleted from the Police Department’s servers after 30 days, and encrypted data from the license-plate readers will be kept for only one year,” according to the paper.

Of course, there is no guarantee the cameras would remain restricted to those limited uses once installed. Theoretically, the system could be used to track every vehicle that enters and exits the city along those seven routes.

A law that went into effect in California earlier this year requires some transparency for agencies deploying ALPRs. They must implement and make public a usage and privacy policy that ensures the collection, use, maintenance, sharing and dissemination of information collected by the devices is consistent with respect for individual privacy and civil liberties.

But the new law does not place any specific limits on storage and sharing of ALPR data. Once the cameras become operational in Manhattan Beach, police will be able to share information with other law enforcement agencies, including the federal government. When that happens, the data will inevitably end up in permanent databases.

In other words, the proposed ALPR camera system could theoretically record data on every vehicle that passes in front of it, store date for up to a year, and share it with any other law enforcement agency.


As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the federal government, via the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) tracks the location of millions of vehicle. They’ve engaged in this for nearly eight years, all without a warrant, or even public notice of the policy.

The DEA could taps into Manhattan Beach database to track the movement of thousands of people – for the simple act of driving – without having to operate a huge network itself.

Law enforcement can configures ALPRs to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location of vehicles. But according to records obtained by the ACLU via a Freedom of Information Act request, the DEA can also captures photographs of drivers and their passengers.

According to the ACLU:

“One internal 2009 DEA communication stated clearly that the license plate program can provide “the requester” with images that “may include vehicle license plate numbers (front and/or rear), photos of visible vehicle occupants [redacted] and a front and rear overall view of the vehicle.” Clearly showing that occupant photos are not an occasional, accidental byproduct of the technology, but one that is intentionally being cultivated, a 2011 email states that the DEA’s system has the ability to store “up to 10 photos per vehicle transaction including 4 occupant photos.”

With the FBI rolling out facial a nationwide recognition program last fall, and the federal government building biometric databases, the fact that the feds can potentially access stored photographs of drivers and passengers, along with detailed location data, magnifies the privacy concerns surrounding ALPRs.

Despite law enforcement assurances to the contrary, the camera system proposed for Manhattan Beach could be used for far more intrusive tracking and surveillance than advertised. All we have preventing such a system from turning into an extensive surveillance network feeding into the federal system is the assurance of a police chief.

The only way to stop ALPR information from ending up in permanent tracking databases – whether federal or state – is passage of legislation specifically restricting the storage and sharing of such data.

The proposal to place ALPRs along major thoroughfares into Manhattan Beach demonstrates the need for limits on the use of this technology, and to restrict storage and sharing of any data gathered.

The law that recently went into effect was a good start. Transparency is important. Were it not for this new law, Manhattan Beach could have installed the system in virtual secrecy. But California clearly needs to place more robust restrictions on ALPRs before the law enforcement possesses the capability of tracking everybody across the entire state.

Click HERE for model legislation to limit ALPR use.

Mike Maharrey

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