License plate readers, facial recognition systems, surveillance cameras, cell phone snoopers. They’re all out there, and the oos needs all the help it can get in fighting back.
That’s why we appreciate the efforts of the Electronic Frontier Base (EFF). The EFF has made citizen surveillance a priority through its newly launched Street Level Surveillance Project (SLS). The SLS is a web portal that provides in-depth information on the technology police and government agencies use to spy on you every day. And while this technology may help catch suspected criminals, the EFF points out that it also scoops up huge amounts of personal data on people who are not suspected of any crimes.
This is especially true with automated license plate readers (ALPRs), which police can use to track the day-to-day movements of everyone who drives a car. By storing and mining those data, authorities can create a detailed profile of someone’s life: where they go and when, who they see, what they do. And this applies to everyone, whether they’re suspected of wrongdoing or not. Considering that less than one percent of license plate “hits” have any immediate law enforcement value, this indiscriminate tracking of the public raises serious privacy and constitutional concerns.
And to make matter worse, authorities often try to hide their use of these intrusive technologies. Companies that supply the technology may require users to sign restrictive non-disclosure agreements. The Harris Corporation, which makes a cell phone snooping device known as a stingray, prevents law enforcement agencies from disclosing their use of the technology to the media or even to other governmental agencies.
As a result, some police agencies employ stingrays without a warrant because they believe the user agreement prevents them from disclosing that to a judge. This not only raises serious constitutional issues, it threatens key tenets of our republic: namely that officials need to conduct their business with transparency and with accountability to the public.
Speaking of transparency and accountability, what can we do to foster these two important, yet elusive, virtues in government? The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and state public records laws were designed to keep the public informed about government operations and hold government accountable in the process. But they’re only effective if people use the tools they provide for obtaining government information.
That’s why the oos has created a free guide that explains how to get information from government agencies through FOIA and public records requests. The easy-to-follow steps will help you find out such things as how a particular speed limit was established or how many accidents occurred at a specific red-light camera intersection. Or maybe even how many times your vehicle license plate has been photographed by an automated license plate reader.
Tech journal Ars Technica did just that with the Oakland Police Department and received records for more than 4.6 million license plate images. Read the article here to learn more about the data’s “revelatory potential.”
Other police agencies have not been as forthcoming. When the ACLU and the EFF asked the Los Angeles Police Department for ALPR data, the department told them it was not subject to disclosure, claiming, “All ALPR data is investigatory—regardless of whether a license plate scan results in an immediate ‘hit.’”
The City of Philadelphia used the same logic when pushed for ALPR data, stating, “Such individual license plate readings and accompanying information are investigative materials that relate to individual criminal investigations.”
Based on these statements, it appears that law enforcement regards all drivers as criminal suspects who are under active investigation every time they get into their cars—a theme we explored in detail in this issue of Driving Freedoms.
All the more reason to hold them accountable. If you don’t want to file a public records request manually, the EFF has teamed with www.muckrock.com to make the process even easier. You simply supply some basic information and submit your request. Be aware that nominal fees may apply.