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More Federal License Scanners Reported

Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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June 21, 2012

(Updated below)

LA Weekly has published an investigative report on the use of License Plate Scanners in Southern California. In addition to reporting that the rapid embrace of the technology by local law enforcement has led to “one of the most densely concentrated license plate recognition systems in the United States,” the article includes this signficant piece of news:

Department of Homeland Security grant documents, obtained by the Weekly through the Freedom of Information Act, suggest that in addition to the hundreds of LPR devices now atop police vehicles, about 60 are hidden along strategic roadways near potential terrorist targets such as LAX and the Port of Long Beach.

If, as the documents obtained by the Weekly “suggest,” DHS is deploying ALPRs, these would join the federal readers that we know Customs and Border Protection and the DEA have deployed near the southern “border” (which the government asserts extends 100 miles inland), and the readers that the DEA would like to deploy along interstate highways (my latest post on that is here, and an examination of the possible consequences here). It’s not clear what agency within DHS would be responsible for these L.A. deployments—whether these are also CBP or DEA cameras, or some other agency’s.

The Weekly report also highlights that:

• A large number of different law enforcement agencies in the region are using the technology—more than two dozen in L.A. County alone according to the paper.
• The records are all being uploaded to a central database.
• The records of innocent people are being retained for two to five years.
• The average number of location snapshots for a car in L.A. County has now reached 22, the paper estimates.

If we do not put some protections in place, that average of 22 location snapshots per car will inevitably climb, probably very rapidly. If that is allowed to happen, it will have very significant reverberations.

Speaking of computerized law enforcement, New York City drivers may come under the watchful eye of automated speed cameras under a new proposal. One thing is certain: the American love affair with the automobile is entering a whole new chapter.

Update (June 27):

Jon Campbell at the LA Weekly contacted me to let me know I’d misunderstood the paragraph I quoted above. In fact, the 60 readers hidden along strategic roadways were financed by a DHS grant, but were not federally operated.

Of course, as Campbell shows in his report, local ALPR databases are being rapidly consolidated, and as federal access to such consolidated databases grows, the difference between federal and local readers will quickly become a distinction without a difference.

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