Marian County, California, serves as a good example of the diligence necessary in the war against police surveillance.

Passing laws to limit government surveillance is an important first step, but activism can’t end there. Law enforcement agencies have to be monitored and people must take action to ensure such laws are enforced.

When documents revealed the Marian County Sheriff’s office was sharing license plate and location information collected by Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs), local activists sued Sheriff Robert Doyle. The ACLU Foundations of Northern California, Southern California, and San Diego & Imperial Counties, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and attorney Michael T. Risher represented Lisa Bennett, Cesar S. Lagleva, and Tara Evans.

Documents show that the sheriff’s office collected ALPR data and illegally shared it with hundreds of agencies state and federal agencies in violation of state law. Federal agencies with access to Marian County ALPR data included the Department of Homeland Security and ICE.

A California state law passed in 2015 requires agencies using ALPRs to implement policies to protect privacy and civil liberties. The law specifically prohibits police from sharing ALPR data with any entity outside the state of California. Sharing information with federal agencies enforcing federal immigration law also violates the “California Values Act.” This law bars state and local law enforcement from using any resources to arrest, detain or hold people on behalf of immigration federal authorities in most situations.

Earlier this month, the plaintiffs reached a settlement with Sheriff Doyle. Under the agreement, the sheriff agreed to stop sharing ALPR data with outside agencies.

“While we are glad to have achieved the core goal of our lawsuit, we remain concerned that Sheriff Doyle violated these state laws for so long and with so little transparency,” said Bennett. “In light of this violation of public trust, we are calling on the Marin County Board of Supervisors to establish an oversight body to ensure continued accountability.”

This case reiterates that passing laws to limit the action of police and other government agencies is just the first step. It’s imperative to continuously monitor the actions of government agencies and hold them accountable when they cross the line. Otherwise, laws are nothing but “parchment barriers.” The case brought against the Marian County Sheriff is a good example of this kind of ongoing activism.

ALPR SURVEILLANCE AND FEDERAL PROGRAMS

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the federal government, via the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), tracks the location of millions of vehicles through data provided by ALPRs operated on a state and local level. They’ve engaged in this for nearly a decade, all without a warrant, or even public notice of the policy.

State and local law enforcement agencies operate most of these tracking systems, paid for by federal grant money. The DEA then taps into the local database to track the whereabouts of millions of people – for the “crime” of driving – without having to operate a huge network itself.

ALPRs can scan, capture and record thousands of license plates every minute and store them in massive databases, along with date, time and location information.

Records obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) through open records requests encompassed information compiled by 200 law enforcement agencies that utilize ALPRs. The data revealed more than 2.5 billion license plate scans in just two years (2016 and 2017).

Perhaps more concerning, this gigantic sample of license plate scans reveals that 99.5 percent of this data was collected regardless of whether the vehicle or its owner were suspected of being involved in criminal activity. On average, agencies share this data with a minimum of 160 other agencies. In some cases, agencies share this data with as many as 800 other agencies.

Private companies contribute to the proliferation of ALPR databases. In late 2019, Rekor Systems announced that they had launched the Rekor Public Safety Network (RPSN) which gives law enforcement real-time access to license plates.

“Any state or local law enforcement agency participating in the RPSN will be able to access real-time data from any part of the network at no cost. The Company is initially launching the network by aggregating vehicle data from customers in over 30 states. With thousands of automatic license plate reading cameras currently in service that capture approximately 150 million plate reads per month, the network is expected to be live by the first quarter of 2020.”

Police generally configure ALPRs to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location of a vehicle’s license plate, which is bad enough. But according to records obtained by the ACLU via a Freedom of Information Act request, these systems also capture photographs of drivers and their passengers.

With the FBI rolling out a nationwide facial-recognition program in the fall of 2014, and the federal government building a giant biometric database with pictures provided by the states and corporate friends, the feds can potentially access stored photographs of drivers and passengers, along with detailed data revealing their location and activities. With this kind of information, government agents can easily find individuals without warrants or oversight, for any reason whatsoever.

Since a majority of federal license plate tracking data comes from state and local law enforcement, laws banning or even restricting ALPR use are essential. As more states pass such laws, the end result becomes more clear. No data equals no federal license plate tracking program.

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