License-plate readers let police collect millions of records on drivers

license plate readerCenter for Investigative Reporting – by Ali Winston

When the city of San Leandro, Calif., purchased a license-plate reader for its police department in 2008, computer security consultant Michael Katz-Lacabe asked the city for a record of every time the scanners had photographed his car.

The results shocked him.  

The paperback-size device, installed on the outside of police cars, can log thousands of license plates in an eight-hour patrol shift. Katz-Lacabe said it had photographed his two cars on 112 occasions, including one image from 2009 that shows him and his daughters stepping out of his Toyota Prius in their driveway.

That photograph, Katz-Lacabe said, made him “frightened and concerned about the magnitude of police surveillance and data collection.” The single patrol car in San Leandro equipped with a plate reader had logged his car once a week on average, photographing his license plate and documenting the time and location.

At a rapid pace, and mostly hidden from the public, police agencies throughout California have been collecting millions of records on drivers and feeding them to intelligence fusion centers operated by local, state and federal law enforcement.

With heightened concern over secret intelligence operations at the National Security Agency, the localized effort to track drivers highlights the extent to which the government has committed to collecting large amounts of data on people who have done nothing wrong.

A year ago, the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center – one of dozens of law enforcement intelligence-sharing centers set up after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 – signed a $340,000 agreement with the Silicon Valley firm Palantir to construct a database of license-plate records flowing in from police using the devices across 14 counties, documents and interviews show.

The extent of the center’s data collection has never been revealed. Neither has the involvement of Palantir, a Silicon Valley firm with extensive ties to the Pentagon and intelligence agencies. The CIA’s venture capital fund, In-Q-Tel, has invested $2 million in the firm.

The jurisdictions supplying license-plate data to the intelligence center stretch from Monterey County to the Oregon border. According to contract documents, the database will be capable of handling at least 100 million records and be accessible to local and state law enforcement across the region.

Law enforcement agencies throughout Northern California will be able to access the data, as will state and federal authorities.

In the Bay Area, at least 32 government agencies use license-plate readers. The city of Piedmont decided to install them along the border with Oakland, and the Marin County enclave of Tiburon placed plate scanners and cameras on two roads leading into and out of town.

Law enforcement agencies throughout the region also have adopted the technology. Police in Daly City, Milpitas and San Francisco have signed agreements to provide data from plate readers to the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center. A Piedmont document indicates that city is also participating, along with Oakland, Walnut Creek, Alameda and the California Highway Patrol.

Katz-Lacabe said he believes the records of his movements are too revealing for someone who has done nothing wrong. With the technology, he said, “you can tell who your friends are, who you hang out with, where you go to church, whether you’ve been to a political meeting.”

Lt. Randall Brandt of the San Leandro police said, “It’s new technology, we’re learning as we go, but it works 100 times better than driving around looking for license plates with our eyes.”

The intelligence center database will store license-plate records for up to two years, regardless of data retention limits set by local police departments.

Many cities use license-plate readers to enforce parking restrictions or identify motorists who run red lights. Police in New York City have used the readers to catch car thieves and scan parking lots to identify motorists with open warrants.

In California, Long Beach police detectives used scanner data to arrest five people in a 2010 homicide. Plate readers in Tiburon identified celebrity chef Guy Fieri’s yellow Lamborghini in March 2011, which allegedly had been stolen from a San Francisco dealership by a teenager who embarked on a crime spree two years ago and now faces attempted murder charges.

Sid Heal, a retired commander with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, oversaw the adoption of plate readers in his agency in the mid-2000s. Heal recalled the dramatic uptick the plate readers made in the auto theft unit’s productivity.

“We found 10 stolen vehicles on the first weekend in 2005 with our antitheft teams,” Heal said. “I had a hit within 45 minutes.”

Before, Heal said, police had to call license plates in to a dispatcher and wait to have the car verified as stolen. Plate readers, Heal said, “are lightning fast in comparison” and allow officers to run up to 1,200 plates an hour, as opposed to 20 to 50 plates per day previously.

But Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the Northern California database raises significant privacy concerns. “Because so many people in the Bay Area are mobile, it makes it that much more possible to track people from county to county,” Lynch said.

In May, the Electronic Frontier Foundationalong with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, sued the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s and Los Angeles Police departments for a week of data gathered and retained in a multiagency network. For now, it’s unknown which agency administers the Los Angeles database, how many agencies contribute or have access to the database, how many records the system retains or how long they are kept.

In San Diego, 13 federal and local law enforcement agencies have compiled more than 36 million license-plate scans in a regional database since 2010 with the help of federal homeland security grants. The San Diego Association of Governments maintains the database. Unlike the Northern California database, which retains the data for between one and two years, the San Diego system retains license-plate information indefinitely.

“License-plate data is clearly identifiable to specific individuals,” said Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “This is like having your barcode tracked.”

Few limits on license-plate data

License-plate readers are not subject to the same legal restrictions as GPS devices that can be used to track an individual’s movements. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously last year that lengthy GPS tracking constitutes a Fourth Amendment search and may require a warrant.

But plate readers might not fall under such rulings if police successfully argue that motorists have no “reasonable expectation of privacy” while driving on public roads.

Then-California state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, introduced a bill last year that would have required California police to purge license-plate data after 60 days and applied that rule to companies that collect such data. Law enforcement and private businesses involved in the technology resisted, and the bill died.

“Do we really want to maintain a database that tracks personal movements of law-abiding citizens in perpetuity? That’s the fundamental question here,” said Simitian, now a Santa Clara County supervisor. “Larger and larger amounts of data collected over longer periods of time provide a very detailed look at the personal movements of private citizens.”

While some law enforcement agencies, like the California Highway Patrol, have their own data retention guidelines for license-plate scanners, Simitian said there still is no larger policy that protects the privacy of Californians on the road.

“Public safety and privacy protection are not mutually exclusive,” he said. “There’s a balance to be struck, and most people understand that.”

Heal, the retired sheriff’s commander, said that absent clear legal limits on license-plate readers, law enforcement agencies will continue to expand their ability to gather such information.

“A lot of the guidance on this technology – the court doctrine – is nonexistent,” Heal said. “Until that guidance comes, law enforcement is in an exploratory mode.”

23 thoughts on “License-plate readers let police collect millions of records on drivers

  1. Seems to me it’s a good thing in the apprehension of criminals for the most part, but like any surveillance device can be used for unlawful search at the bid of a deceptive person or agency and/or for other unconstitutional purposes. Traffic cameras catch red-light runners much to the distaste of the fine payer but nonetheless has a deterrent effect on society. Is Big Brother watching? You bet he is~!

      1. Rapist, Bank Robber, Pimp ass Whore Drug dealer, Purse Snatcher, One who looks for Crimes of Opportunity, In short a shit head and a scum bag who has no respect for the lives and/or property of others. Any deceptive human pustule. Does that answer your question?

        1. “Rapist, Bank Robber, Pimp ass Whore Drug dealer, Purse Snatcher, One who looks for Crimes of Opportunity, In short a shit head and a scum bag who has no respect for the lives and/or property of others. Any deceptive human pustule. Does that answer your question?”

          Since that describes most millitary and gouvernment officials, it doesn’t really answer the question much.

          But a good rule of thumb on “surveliiance is OK” arguements is to simply reverse it. for example, take your camera and every day approach a cop, take his picture and a picture of his cop car in uniform and in a public place, then leave. Repeat the next day. See how long it takes before you’re questioned, detained, or simply have your camera taken from you. Again you’re doing once a day what they do HUNDREDS of times a day, but when YOU do it to THEM, it’s a crime.

          That’s the only litmus test I’ve ever needed.

          1. Bad Lieutenant? Yes I guess there are a few. I remember getting pulled over in the mid 1970’s on I-95. The cop searched the car, found a full oz. bag of Colombian Gold I thought I stashed good. He advised me to wait in the car, i obliged. While looking in the rear view mirror I saw him smelling it and laughing with the other cop. He returned to me thinking I was going to spend the night in jail, the cop said: I’m going to let you go which made me very relieved. After I started the car he came back and asked me if I had any rolling papers which I also gave him. Needless to say I was glad at the time.

          2. Good call there digger, although even Mr. Obvious could not have missed “That’s why we have the “hat cam”. It’s good to know we have “watchful eyes” and “inquisitive minds” keeping the comment section “a cop free zone”.

        2. Leo’s(law enforcement officer) and the law enforcement system sees EVERYONE/including you as a potential criminal. there is no more due process of law. your ignorance is part of the collective dumbing down of people’s familiarity of their God-given rights for free/unincumbered travel without being disturbed on or about your person/property or vehicle. in summary, YOU are the criminal. even if you havent offended anyone.

          1. Are you saying there are “no Blue Knights”? Because if that’s what you are saying I don’t believe that at all. There are many in uniform who are Peace Keepers and Public Servants. The main problem is that their lives are usually in more danger than the average citizen so they do become “leery” of everyone they have to deal with. Yeah they have to be quick on the draw with the criminal element out there, who can blame them for thinking of preserving their life? It is not the cops fault (generally) but society’s fault for not eliminating the criminal element. They commit first degree murder and are put out in the streets on technicalities thus further endangering society, they should be put to death more often rather than given a slap on the wrist. LIghten up on the decent cops please.

          2. @ Timothy 1:33, cops put themselves in that position. What happens to a cop when a cop shoots and kills a innocent? What happens when a cop makes a bad bust? Not a damned thing except that the cop gets a two week vacation and a gold star on his cop record. Cops are there to arrest people – legally or illegally – and they WILL set people up and all they want is a conviction!! I know that well `cause they have done that to me a time or two and because I wouldn`t snitch on someone they trumped up the charges and found me guilty of something I had no involvment in. I know damned well that they do that `cause the sheriff told me that after I was found guilty – yea he said they knew I was not guilty but they just wanted me to snitch on people.Yea Timothy, The f*ckin` feds even offered me a good payin`job workin` for them before I was found guilty and I told them to stuff it and that is mostly why they “found” me guilty. In fact they said it is time to move out of town or I will have some real problems to deal with – yea I moved out of town, but I still spread the word of what they did and I find that it is common that they do that and people said that it realy was in my best interest that I did move out of town. Yea Timothy, that sheriff said that and he also said that he dosen`t like being involved with what his job is about but it “IS HIS JOB” and he will do what is required to keep his job. F them GD cops and Fed Agents. Period they are un american and un christian!! period. I`m done on this issue with ya `cause I can see there is no talking with ya on this issue. Just askin`, are you from a cop family or something like a cop family?

          3. diggerdan DUDE~! Are you saying there should be NO police at all? I am just wondering who will protect relatively innocent people is they get gang banged? Who is going to apprehend the mugger in the street who jumps an old lady for her purse? Who will go after a thief to stop them from getting away with their shit hole lifestyle? I don’t get your point? All cops ain’t bad you know???

          4. Timothy,
            You mean like the blue knights that murder our people daily on the streets? I think you might be on the wrong site.

      1. Okay? I would say it largely depends on how these devices are used that counts. You know we are entering into a situation whereon the law is more up against it in the streets, it gets harder and harder to stop criminals. Should we just allow them to have a field day with crime? It is just as important that non-criminals are protected.

        1. There is not one cop out there that is not infringing on the Bill of Rights on a daily basis. Every law enforcement officer not elected by local voters is an unconstitutional corporate enforcer.
          And you are definitely on the wrong site.

          1. Everytime we turn around it’s something else. What’s next? The ovens?

        2. Tim-

          Can I have your badge number? Let people carry peace keepers and watch crime drop like a rock. Cops are good for one thing and one thing only, clocking out.

          1. Hey mark you forgot one detail- when the get called to a scene, they glock out(murder) the “suspect”. then they go back to the station and “clock out”.

  2. “A lot of the guidance on this technology – the court doctrine – is nonexistent”

    That is a line of BS.

    When California police first began using these scanners around 2000, the California supreme court stepped in and ruled the devices were unconstitutional. I suppose that was when we still had a constitution.

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