Everyone Is Under Investigation.

Smart-License-ROHVia Walter Olsen over at the blog comes the story of relatively new police technology that allows police to scan, read and check license plates against a database.

“License Plate Readers” (LPR’s) are cameras mounted on a police vehicle. Every time the camera sees a license plate, it scans the image and enters the license plate into a database. The cameras and the technology allows police to scan thousands of license plates and hour without ever lifting a finger. When the LPR has a “hit” on a plate that has been reported stolen, matches someone driving without insurance, has a warrant, etc., the police officer is alerted and they can pull the alleged miscreant over.

The technology has gotten so good that the systems can see through different weather conditions and even at night. Nothing but the on / off switch stops the camera from recording license plates, where they were seen, and the time of day. It doesn’t matter whether you are on a road, highway, parked in a parking lot, parked in your driveway, or parked along the street, the LPR will scan the license plate at an average rate of 60 license plates per second. Cities have been known to mount the LPR’s on every street that comes into the city to be able to track people coming and going. As part of investigations, police can use the data to track the movements of cars and their drivers. If the police suspect someone of dealing or buying drugs, they can use the data to track locations where the deals may be made. A sales video from Vigilant Solutions shows how software can track people using the data from a LPR.

Sounds like a great crime fighting tool, doesn’t it?

The problem is that LPR’s scan and keep data on every license plate they “see.”

That means the data from people who aren’t doing anything other than going about their daily lives are tracked by the police.

The answer from some people is the simplistic “if you aren’t doing anything wrong, what do you have to worry about?”


The issue is that if the data is not part of an investigation, it becomes public record. A person who is not in law enforcement can get data on you, allowing them to ascertain where you work, live, doctors, places you like to visit, etc. Ars Technica ran this little “experiment” to demonstrate:

Howard Matis, a physicist who works at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, told Ars that he didn’t know that OPD [Oakland Police Department] even had LPRs. With his permission, we ran his plate and showed him a map of the five instances where a camera had captured his car, guessing that they were near where he lived or worked. Matis replied by e-mail: “You are correct, they are places that I and my wife go all the time.”

“If anyone can get this information, that’s getting into Big Brother,” he told Ars. “If I was trying to look at what my spouse is doing, [I could]. To me, that is something that is kind of scary. Why do they allow people to release this without a law enforcement reason? Searching it or accessing the information should require a warrant.”

Matis immediately fired off an e-mail to Dan Kalb, his city council member:


Do you know why Oakland is spying on me and my wife? We haven’t done anything too radical or illegal.

I gave my license plate to a journalist and he found my wife’s and my car in their database. One of the locations is right near our house.

The astounding thing about this information is that anyone, and I mean anyone, can get this information. Some of the information is more than two years old.

I can see lawyers using this information for lawsuits. I can check where my wife is located. Car companies can see my habits. Insurance companies can check up on their clients. We have entered the world of 1984 with the difference that anyone can get the information.

On the other hand, to keep the data out of the public record, police departments could claim that the data – all of the data – is part of an investigation, which is exactly what the City of Los Angeles is claiming in a lawsuit.

Do you drive a car in the greater Los Angeles Metropolitan area? According to the L.A. Police Department and L.A. Sheriff’s Department, your car is part of a vast criminal investigation.

The agencies took a novel approach in the briefs they filed in EFF and the ACLU of Southern California’s California Public Records Act lawsuit seeking a week’s worth of Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR) data. They have argued that All [license plate] data is investigatory.” The fact that it may never be associated with a specific crime doesn’t matter.

This argument is completely counter to our criminal justice system, in which we assume law enforcement will not conduct an investigation unless there are some indicia of criminal activity. In fact, the Fourth Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution exactly to prevent law enforcement from conducting mass, suspicionless investigations under “general warrants” that targeted no specific person or place and never expired.

Of the two options – releasing the data to the public or using the cloak of “all data is investigatory” – neither seems to serve the public well. Luckily, there is a third option of deleting the data once a license plate is not found to be “wanted” for anything. That would still allow for the data on specific individuals and cars to be kept for lawful purposes, but everything else is thrown in the electronic dumpster immediately.

Not surprisingly, law enforcement doesn’t want that option arguing that at the time the scan is made, they may not know a crime has been committed. Such thinking is mind boggling. Under that “logic” the police would be able to stop you at any time and any place because even though they have no information or active investigation, they may have one in the future.

In addition, while the police are happy to track you, they aren’t too thrilled when the public bands together and tracks them:

Sheriffs are campaigning to pressure Google Inc. to turn off a feature on its Wazetraffic software that warns drivers when police are nearby. They say one of the technology industry’s most popular mobile apps could put officers’ lives in danger from would-be police killers who can find where their targets are parked.

Waze, which Google purchased for $966 million in 2013, is a combination of GPS navigation and social networking. Fifty million users in 200 countries turn to the free service for real-time traffic guidance and warnings about nearby congestion, car accidents, speed traps or traffic cameras, construction zones, potholes, stalled vehicles or unsafe weather conditions.

Goose, meet gander.

If the police are going to gather data for the purpose of being able to investigate everyone, then they should have no issues with people gathering data on them.

4 Responses to “Everyone Is Under Investigation.”

  1. Charles Hinton says:

    If known criminals come into my area I want the police to know it. If a crime happens I would like the police to check every person who was in the area at the time of the crime via his license plate. If getting his license plate at the site of a crime enables police to identify a criminal they can now scan where else that license plate was seen at the place of a crime. Paranoids can always find some theoretical reason to obstruct the police in the performance of their duty – catching crooks.

    • AAfterwit says:

      Mr. Hinton,

      As we stated in the article, the LA Police said “every license plate is investigatory data.” Before the judge, the lawyers for LA could not offer a single incident or hypothetical where everyone is under investigation or deserves to be under investigation.

      Part of the founding of the country was based on limiting broad investigative abilities of the government.

      You want the police to know everyone’s movement even when they have committed no crime? You want police to be able to track you? Where you go? Who you visit? Are you advocating that your legal movements are subject to the knowledge of the police?

      If the police want to scan license plates for crooks, that’s fine. It is the keeping of the data that is the issue because there is no known crime that has been committed when the data is collected. Police can investigate crimes. They cannot investigate hoping that a crime will take place at a later time.

      For hundreds of years in this country police have been able to “catch crooks” without investigating and labeling everyone as being a crook.

      A. Afterwit.

      • Charles Hinton says:

        You said, “If the police want to scan license plates for crooks, that’s fine. It is the keeping of the data that is the issue because there is no known crime that has been committed when the data is collected. Police can investigate crimes. They cannot investigate hoping that a crime will take place at a later time.

        I say, “The keeping of the data enables police to identify the newly discovered crook with previous places he was at during the commission of an unsolved crime.”

        You said police have been solving crimes for a long time and I agree. However, they solve a lot more of them with the new technology – like solving long past crimes with DNA. The more data they have the more they solve Committing crimes is not a sporting event.

        • AAfterwit says:

          Mr. Hinton,

          Your position labels everyone as a crook.

          Federal law does not allow for agencies to collect general data on people unless it is related to a specific crime or investigation. (28 C.F.R . Part 23 is one example.) The Supreme Court has held that checkpoint stops without a specific purpose are unConstitutional.

          Unfortunately, you believe that the police should be able to put the cart before the horse. You believe that the police should be able to collect and keep specific, identifiable, private information on people who have not committed a crime in the hope that specific information may or may not help convict some person who may or may not have committed a crime at some undefinable later point in time.

          As the EFF says:

          Taken to an extreme, the agencies’ arguments would allow law enforcement to conduct around-the-clock surveillance on every aspect of our lives and store those records indefinitely on the off-chance they may aid in solving a crime at some previously undetermined date in the future. If the court accepts their arguments, the agencies would then be able to hide all this data from the public.

          Clearly we see this issue issue differently. You have no problems with the police tracking innocent, law abiding citizens.

          I, on the other hand, am against it as it is contrary in part to the freedoms the country was founded upon.

          A. Afterwit.