July, 2013

Automated Traffic
Surveillance Developments

Iowa City repealed an earlier-passed ordinance, No. 12-4466, which allowed automated traffic surveillance systems, plate-recognition systems, and drone use for traffic enforcement.  The amended version, passed in June, 2013, now states Iowa City shall not:

A. Use any automatic traffic surveillance system or device, automatic license plate recognition system or device, or domestic drone system or device for the enforcement of a qualified traffic law violation, unless a peace officer or Parking Enforcement Attendant is present at the scene, witnesses the event, and personally issues the ticket to the alleged violator at the time and location of the violation; nor

B. Store, archive, transmit, share, publish, grant access to, sell, index, cross - reference, or otherwise aggregate, distribute, analyze, or process any data obtained through automatic traffic surveillance system or device, automatic license plate recognition system or device, or domestic drone system or device unless the data directly pertains to a qualified traffic law violation or other criminal law violation for which a ticket, citation, or arrest was issued or made by a peace officer  or Parking Enforcement Attendant who was present at the scene.

Meanwhile, House Bill No. 4763, a bipartisan bill, was proposed in May, 2013, in Michigan to allow automated traffic safety devices, i.e., traffic cameras.  The bill would require a police officer to review the collected images; if a prosecution does result, the owner of the vehicle -- not the driver -- could be responsible for a civil infraction and fine up to $130.00.  Revenue would be divided between the state and the local governmental entity.

Sources:  “Iowa lawmakers move to ban drones, red light cameras, license plate readers,” foxnews.com, June 5, 2013: http://www.foxnews.com/politics /2013/06/05/iowa-city-moves-to-ban-drones-red-lig ht-cameras-and-license-plate-readers/print.  Iowa City Code: http://sterlingcodifiers.com/codebook/ index.php?book_id=953&chapter_id=76506.  Kristen M. Daum, “Bill would allow red light cameras in Michigan,” lansingstatejournal.com, June 4, 2013: http://www.lansingstatejournal.com/article/20130604/NEWS01/306040035/Bill-would-allow-red-light-cameras-Michigan?nclick_check=1

ACLU July, 2013, Study

The ACLU published a study in July, 2013, “You Are Being Tracked: How License Plate Readers Are Being Used To Record Americans’ Movements.”  ACLU Staff Attorney Catherine Crump stated that the report followed FOI requests to 293 law enforcement agencies in thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia; the requests resulted in 26,000 pages of documents.  Ms. Crump noted that license plate readers “are just one example of a disturbing phenomenon: the government is increasingly using new technology to collect information about all of us, all the time, and to store it forever -- providing a complete record of our lives for it to access at will.”

Ms. Crump also noted that the study showed a wide range in how the various law enforcement agencies retain the collected data; for example, the Minnesota State Patrol retains the information only for forty-eight hours.  Other agencies, like Yonkers, New York, Mesquite, Texas, and Grapevine, Texas, retain the information indefinitely.  Other examples demonstrate the amount of information collected.  In Jersey City, New Jersey, for example, the population is about 250,000 people.  However, the city, which retains the data for five years, collects over two million license plate images yearly, so it likely has over ten million images on file.

Actual “hits” on suspicious vehicles are few in number, Ms. Crump said.  For example, of the 29 million images collected in Maryland between January and May, 2012, only about one in five hundred -- about 0.2% -- hit on a suspicious vehicle.  Of those hits, most involved suspended or revoked registrations or emission violations.  A law enforcement official said that of those 29 million image-captures, police were able to track 132 actual wanted suspects.  In Minnesota, between 2009 and 2011, 1,691,031 plates were scanned.  Only 852 citations were issued and 131 arrests were made, showing a hit-rate of about 0.05% of the plates read.

The ACLU report describes how the license plate readers capture and keep data on all vehicles, and not just on those suspicious vehicles prompting a “hit,” and states that “[t]he implementation of automatic license plate readers poses serious privacy and other civil liberties threats.  More and more cameras, longer retention periods, and widespread sharing allow law enforcement agents to assemble the individual puzzle pieces of where we have been over time into a single, high-resolution image of our lives.”  Such monitoring can chill a person’s rights to free speech and association, the report also stated.

The report cited, as an example of the potential risks, the following language from an opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit: “A person who knows all of another’s travels can deduce whether he is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.”  The report also included a quote from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which illustrates that law enforcement recognizes the potential dangers: “The risk is that individuals will become more cautious in the exercise of their protected rights of expression, protest, association, and political participation because they consider themselves under constant surveillance.”

Individual officers could abuse the database, and, as the report stated, “Anyone with access to these systems could track his boss, his ex-wife, his romantic or workplace rivals, friends, enemies, neighbors, family, and so forth.  An agent could target the owners of vehicles parked at political meetings, gay bars, gun stores, or abortion clinics.”  Further, “[w]hole communities may be targeted based on their religious, ethnic, or associational makeup.”

The technology, which is designed to, for example, find specific suspect vehicles, stolen vehicles, and those involved in Amber Alerts, has grown to the extent that even an officer on foot, with an app, can use a smartphone to scan license plates.

License plate reader use is widespread and is not limited to governmental entities.  Private companies, particularly those involved in car repossession, maintain such databases.   For example, MVTrac, a repossession company, was quoted as saying that it has photographs and location data of “a large majority” of the vehicles registered in the United States.

The ACLU study proposed nine specific recommendations, including that: “The police must have reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred before examining collected license plate reader data; they must not examine license plate reader data in order to generate reasonable suspicion;” “data about innocent people [must not be stored] for any lengthy period,” and, unless the vehicle is shown to be a hit, the “retention periods should be measured in days or weeks, not months, and certainly not years;” controls must be set-up to manage and limit access to the databases; people should have the right to discover if their plate data is in the database;  “hot lists” should be updated frequently, “at a minimum, at the beginning of each shift;” and entities using the plate readers “should be required to report its usage publicly on at least an annual basis.”

Sources:  Catherine Crump, “Police Documents on License Plate Scanners Reveal Mass tracking,” aclu.org, July 17, 2013: http://www.aclu.org/blog /technology-and-liberty-national-security/police-doc uments-license-plate-scanners-reveal-mass.  ACLU report: “You Are Being Tracked: How License Plate Readers Are Being Used To Record Americans’ Movements,” ACLU, July 17, 2013: http://www.a clu.org/technology-and-liberty/you-are-being-tracked -how-license-plate-readers-are-being-used-record. Anne Flaherty, “Driving somewhere? There’s a gov’t record of that, ” AP, July 17, 2013: http://news. yahoo.com/driving-somewhere-theres-govt-record-140 052644.html

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor