NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. (Aug. 4, 2016) – If you park your car in Newport Beach, police will likely scan your license plate with an automated license plate reader (ALPR). According to police, this automatically makes you the subject of a criminal investigation.
In an effort to find out what police do with all of the data they collect using automatic license plate readers (ALPRs), local activist Mike Glenn filed an open records request. The police refused to release the information.
“Data collected by automated license plate readers is exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act. The data collected by ALPRs is exempt from disclosure because it constitutes law enforcement records of investigation.”
In other words, if you have ever parked in PCH or Balboa Peninsula, your license plate was likely scanned and that makes you part of a criminal investigation.
Residents of Newport Beach like to think of themselves as different. They are a speck of red in the blue-state of California, a bastion of conservatism in a land of progressives. But when it comes to embracing the surveillance state, Newport Beach is exactly like the rest of California.
The San Francisco Bay area city of Danville recently became the latest California municipality to obtain ALPRs. As it turns out, Newport Beach has approved the use of this license plate tracking technology too. The stated purpose of ALPR scanning is parking control, but it remains unclear how police store the data and if they utilize it for other purposes.
According to Glenn, in 2015 police floated the idea of installing ALPRs on the Balboa Island Bridge to monitor who comes on and off the island.
“The pretext of this was that they could determine which criminals were entering and leaving– but the only way to know that would be to know which car had committed a crime, and what time they had committed it. Only then would the license plate information become useful. Obviously, the true purpose for this request was… not what was being communicated.”
The system could ostensibly store location data for every single vehicle coming and going. This was clearly the intent in Danville, and the police chief even tacitly admitted it, saying, “Once a crime occurred, we have the ability to go back and look and get a lead to work on, where we wouldn’t have had that lead before.” Without a database containing information on every vehicle, how would cops be able to identify a vehicle after a crime? It seems unlikely the cameras will come equipped with magic chips that activate them only when a “criminals” passes by.
The 2015 effort failed, but recently the Newport Beach city council approved the use of ALPRs to scan a major segment of the peninsula. “The purported reason behind this was to create resident-only parking after 4 p.m., and having LPR be the method of enforcement,” Glenn said.
But with no restrictions on ALPRs in the state, residents and visitors have no guarantee that their license plate location information won’t find its way into a permanent database.
Glenn says the use of ALPRs may well expand in the future. Officials have proposed an ALPR zone on PCH in Corona del Mar, enforced by two roving police vehicles equipped with license plate readers.
“Now they are even replacing our parking meters –we now have to ‘digitally pay’ and include our license plate numbers – and the roving ALPRs will determine if we are still allowed to be parked.”
Again, we have no idea how police are storing and accessing this data. And we can’t find out because they claim it is all part of an ongoing criminal investigation.
Glenn thinks the whole setup violates city ordinances.
“Taking a step back from the chaos of all of this, though – it all flies in the face of Measure EE, passed by the voters of Newport Beach in 2012, which banned the use of ‘Automated Traffic Enforcement Systems. Is it legal? Very doubtful. Are the records supposed to be public? Yes, unless the data is part of an “ongoing police investigation”– which apparently we are all a part of now.”
Enabling the Federal Surveillance State
There’s a good chance all of this information is finding its way into a giant federal database.
As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the federal government, via the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), tracks the location of millions of vehicles. They’ve engaged in this for nearly eight years, all without a warrant, or even public notice of the policy.
State and local law enforcement agencies operate most of these tracking systems. The DEA then taps into the local database to track the whereabouts of millions of people – for the simple act of driving – without having to operate a huge network itself.
Since a majority of federal license plate tracking data comes from state and local law enforcement, each additional local database potentially adds to the federal surveillance system.
Law enforcement generally configures ALPRs to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location of vehicles. But according to newly disclosed records obtained by the ACLU via a Freedom of Information Act request, the DEA is 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.
State and local government need to get serious about putting limits on ALPRs, especially on the storage of information. These systems not only threaten privacy in your towns, they enable an every-growing federal surveillance. We can stop it in its tracks simply by taking action at the local level.