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Survey: California Cops Abusing Privacy Rights with Auto Plate Readers

Automated license-plate readers (“ALPRs”) have come into wider use among law enforcement circles, touted for making the jobs of police easier and more efficient.

The technology employs high-speed cameras in cop cars, on top of streetlights, and other  locations to record the license plate of every single vehicle that passes. The data are automatically uploaded to a computer vehicle network that tracks the precise place and time each one is spotted, thus allowing an algorithm to flag speeding and other traffic violations.

It is also capable of tracking every vehicle on the road, creating a profile of where each one went, how long each stayed, and other details that pry into the lives of private citizens.

Authorities claim the technology is only used to monitor “people of interest,” yet there is little-to-no oversight as to which individuals are placed on such a list or who might have access to the resulting data. Civil rights advocates have pointed out that ALPRs can be turned against political rivals or any other group by tracking which vehicles show up at protests, union meetings, religious services, health clinics, or gun stores.

An investigation launched in the summer of 2019 by the California State Auditor’s office found that fears of potential abuses of the technology were far from ungrounded. ALPRs were already being used by 230 state agencies at the time of the audit, with 36 more planning to deploy them in the coming months. Among those that had the technology currently in use, 96 percent stated they had policies in place governing its usage and who could access the data; however, of the four agencies that investigators focused on, all fell short of state law requirements.

The County Sheriff’s Offices of Sacramento and Marin, as well as the Fresno Police Department, had policies that failed to address how their use of the technology met privacy standards or limited access to it in any way. The fourth and largest agency audited, the Los Angeles Police Department, did not even have a particular ALPR policy.

In addition to policy failures, the auditor’s report cited problems such as the risk of potential abuse connected to surveillance technology and a lack of oversight. The four agencies reviewed “neglect[ed] to institute sufficient monitoring” and had not implemented state guidelines intended to shield police data from being shared with federal immigration authorities. Investigators found that the agencies’ data were being made available to over 1,000 law enforcement groups covering 44 states.

The report concluded with several recommendations, including that state agencies using ALPRs need to assess and revise their related policies by August 2020. It also suggested legislation requiring the California Justice Department to create a model ALPR policy for local agencies to use as a template. That model should include limits on how long data can be kept and which personnel are allowed to access it, and that those practices come under periodic review.

Because local agencies have been operating in violation or ignorance of existing state law regarding ALPRs, it is unclear how additional legislation would make a difference. One effective solution has been proposed by the watchdog group EFF: a moratorium on ALPR use in California, at least until civil rights and privacy concerns can be satisfactorily addressed. 


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