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License plate datamining may be the next privacy battle for courts

ALPR captures data such as the location and address of the vehicle, the number of times the vehicle has been sighted at a location and the time/date of the vehicle was sighted.
ALPR captures data such as the location and address of the vehicle, the number of times the vehicle has been sighted at a location and the time/date of the vehicle was sighted.
LA Times

In what privacy advocates hailed as a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that police must obtain a warrant to search cell phones belonging to people they arrest.

Deputy Charlie Cam of the LA County Sheriff's Department has the only patrol car at the La Mirada substation equipped with an Automatic License Plate Recognition system, increasingly popular among police.
Deputy Charlie Cam of the LA County Sheriff's Department has the only patrol car at the La Mirada substation equipped with an Automatic License Plate Recognition system, increasingly popular among police.
Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Cellphones are more like computers than old-fashioned address books, the Justices concluded – an important distinction that providing a safeguard in the digital age both for law-abiding Americans and criminals.

Acknowledging that the ruling would make some police work harder, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his decision, "Privacy comes at a cost." Law-enforcement officials, meanwhile, expressed disappointment. Technology "is making it easier and easier for criminals to do their trade," said one district attorney, while the court "is making it harder for law enforcement to do theirs."

That this was a unanimous decision makes a clear statement, and may ease the fears of what some call the "police state" – unwarranted spying by the government on its own citizens, and other infringements on civil liberties. But in grappling with the implications of modern technology on constitutional rights, the court has been forced to alternately side with law enforcement and the individual. The challenge of "mission creep technology" may next manifest itself with another casual component of our daily lives: license plates.

Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) systems are the new rage in law enforcement worldwide. Cameras – affixed to a police car or static locations like light poles, or under bridges – capture thousands of license plates per minute, storing information in databases, recording not only the license plate number, but also the GPS location where each car was "pinged." Tens of millions of federal grant dollars have been doled out to police agencies nationwide for ALPR procurement, setting the groundwork for an expansive, nationwide motor vehicle tracking system.

A 2012 investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) showed that at least one private manufacturer of license plate recognition systems has been retaining its own ALPR data, creating an enormous, national database. Information from that database, the National Vehicle Location Service, is not bound by the few privacy regulations governing government ALPR databases maintained by public agencies. CIR showed that the private firm that owns that database, Vigilant Solutions of Livermore, CA, sells acquired data to police, creating a loophole to skirt around the few public regulations that exist to safeguard against improper, retroactive police spying, which privacy advocates see as a major intrusion.

It's created an additional wrinkle: Drivers who are erroneously pulled over after license plate readers tell police they're driving stolen vehicles. Think of it as a high-tech version of an old school problem: Cops making a bad ID on a license plate. Either by a visual scan, by an officer who got a number wrong and everybody converged on the vehicle, or now, a computerized one.

But the digital angle has an added component: more and more technology and surveillance conducted by law enforcement, banks, insurance companies and who knows who else, involving both public and private uses of your time, your car, your Internet – everything.

Visual Solutions, the Livermore-based company that provides the back end for a lot of this, is adding 70 million new license plate scans to their database every month, but they really want to do is blend it with facial recognition software, public records, anything that can be scraped together to build a database on you. The question then becomes, what's done with that? We may not find out until there's an error in that database that gets you pulled over by police. That's the easy one to correct. Other goof ups might be beyond our reach because they're somewhere out there in the ether.

In addition to this information aggregation, they're also going to be compiling information on felons and parolees so that when you approach that car, you know just about everything you can about the driver. They want to expand it to where that car's been. Can it be clocked for a crime scene in the area? What is the tracking on it?

And the back and forth is typical of our society: If it works, everyone says, "Wow, that's great technology. Look how fast they caught that bad guy!" If it doesn't work thanks to some misinformation, you're sitting in the county lockup waiting to call your lawyer, who just might be thinking "lawsuit!"

It's a question you might think about this every time you go to the mailbox and there's more paper spam than real mail – flyers, catalogs, solicitations from realtors, solar companies or window cleaners. You might tell yourself it keeps the post office in business, but it can prove frustrating trying to figure out where the trail began, how that retailer got your information so it could mail you that flyer that more often than not ends up in the trash.

California State Senator Jerry Hill has legislation to limit how these license plate scanners can work, who gets the data and for how long. There are battles in the back rooms at the state capital in Sacramento over the entire breadth of information that you put on your car with its computer, with your cell phone and other digital devices. Companies say they want that information – and they don't necessarily want you opting out of giving it to them – so they can sell it to a whole bunch of different people, which brings us right back to the mailbox and all that paper you get on a daily basis.

Technology and our inability to keep up. As one privacy advocate has already joked, "Privacy is so yesterday."