ACLU Renews Request for Details on D.C. Police Use of Automatic License Plate Readers Including Apparent Database Security Breach: Part of Massive Nationwide Request

July 30, 2012

The American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital today asked for records of an apparent breach of security in the system of recording vehicle license tags operated by the Washington Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) using automatic license plate readers (ALPRs).

According to an official MPD presentation to a police conference a year ago, equipment was installed in at least one MPD cruiser by a private California firm that captured tag data, separately from MPD’s own system.  Finding the firm had little or no policy on privacy and may not have had authority to install the extra equipment, the MPD (according to the presentation) ordered the firm to “scrub” from own system the D.C. data it had captured and to “cease and desist.”  The firm, with a nationwide database of 700 million tag sightings, was evidently trying to establish some connection with the MPD and contacted high officials to offer equipment for a “test drive.”

The same presentation noted also how plates captured by MPD are routinely transferred to other agencies.

ACLU senior staff attorney Fritz Mulhauser said today, “The revelations in the MPD presentation show the urgent need for legislation to guide the license plate readers here--as we urged in our testimony earlier this year. With government now capturing just about every vehicle's movement, the public needs to know which government agencies and--it seems--private firms are getting the data and what they’re doing with it.”

Two relevant slides from the MPD presentation are here.

Today’s ACLU request asked for all records of the episode with the firm, Vigilant Video, and all agreements by MPD to transfer its tag data to others. 

The license plate cameras are everywhere, mounted on patrol cars or on stationary objects along roads such as telephone poles or the underside of bridges, that snap a photograph of every license plate that enters their field of view. Typically, each photo is time, date, and GPS-stamped, stored, and sent to a database, which provides an alert to a patrol officer whenever a match or “hit” appears when the plate is checked against external databases, such as lists of stolen vehicles.

The Washington Post last November reported D.C. has more cameras (the highest concentration in the nation) and keep the data far longer (three years) in comparison with all surrounding jurisdictions.

In an interview three years ago, then Los Angeles Police Department Chief of Detectives Charlie Beck (now Chief of Police) gave a revealing comment showing police enthusiasm for the new tool of ALPR databases. He put it this way: the "real value" of the LPR technology, he said, "comes from the long-term investigative uses of being able to track vehicles--where they've been and what they've been doing – and tie that to crimes that have occurred or that will occur."

The ACLU testified earlier this year to the D.C. Council on how MPD operates the license tag program in secrecy, stonewalling an earlier ACLU request for basic details of its ALPR operations that include dozens of fixed and roving cameras.  Pointing out the obvious privacy implications of a massive government database tracing every vehicle’s movements, the ACLU called for legislation to regulate the new technology to harness its benefits but limit abuse.  The license plates captured by the cameras are stored in a database.  With a few years of ALPR data on all the tag sightings in an area, police can determine whether and how often a particular registered owner's car has been spotted at a specific church, union hall, bar, political party headquarters, abortion clinic, strip club or any number of other locations a driver might wish to keep private.

Today’s request in D.C. coincided with requests by ACLU offices in 35 states for details of ALPR operations at local and state levels. Details here. In addition, the ACLU and the ACLU of Massachusetts filed federal Freedom of Information Act requests with the departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Transportation to learn how the federal government funds ALPR expansion nationwide and uses the technology itself.