a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

“The License Plate is Just the Beginning”

Posted by Thomas Nephew on January 28th, 2009

Last night the Takoma Park City Council took up the proposed license plate scanner system that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. A video of the meeting can be viewed via this link (Windows Media player required); the worksession begins around the 52:20 minute mark.  A 2-page briefing (.PDF) can be seen here.

While civil liberties concerns were expressed, I mainly sensed a desire not to disagree very much with the plan.  It seemed to me councilmembers were still coming to grips with the issue, let alone opposing, reining in, or even closely questioning the police about the device — or they might have called other witnesses and experts: perhaps the city attorney, perhaps any of a number of other lawyers the town boasts.

After the meeting, I talked with several of the police officials. Captain Coursey — the officer who wrote the grant proposal for the device — told me that the systems he was looking at included PlateScan (slogan: “The License Plate is Just the Beginning” ) and ELSAG, maker of the “Mobile Plate Hunter 900“, which brags that “after-action analysis” of license plate data can lead to, among other things, “watch list development” and “pattern recognition.”

What was frustrating to me was that a number of assertions were made during the meeting, or emerged after the meeting, that deserved clear rejoinders but didn’t get them.  Herewith some of those assertions and my own rejoinders:

  • License plates are public knowledge; people can pay a business like this one a few bucks and find out who owns a given license plate.

Answer: I don’t like that people can buy such information either.  But at any rate, I expect more of our police department, and what it or other agencies could do with the information is of even more concern to me than what some snoopy private citizen might do.  Moreover, as a citizen, I can hope to do more about it.

  • With this system, there are no “pings” of another agency’s database — all the queries are done against downloaded data.

Answer: That is undeniably a good thing, and at least the PlateScan and ELSAG systems do appear to do checks against downloaded data, rather than sending data elsewhere to be checked and stored.  But notice also that in the past, those “pings” were (or ought to have been) based on some policeman’s or policewoman’s suspicion about a car — it matched a description she’d heard, something about the driving behavior was off.  Now it’s simply wholesale surveillance.

  • Police queries about license plates are acceptable under settled law.

Answer: That may well be, and I’ll try to learn more about that.  But meanwhile, that law may have been settled for a pre-scanner world; the legal reasoning of a court might well change once confronted with the results of wholesale, no-probable-cause surveillance.  Even if it didn’t, see the “other communities do it” answer below.  On this topic, a police officer told me that sometimes police will simply key in (or radio in, or something) license plates of cars going by, willy-nilly.  Absent articulable suspicion about a car or its driver, I don’t like that, either. It may be legal, but it shouldn’t be.

  • Policies can be set to reduce the potential for abuse and alarm.

Answer: True.  I hope that is done, and I hope that I’m wrong about the lack of Council interest in  formulating its own policy proposals, rather than wait for the police department’s.  I hope the council will find the Constitution Project’s “Guidelines for Public Video Surveillance” useful; I sent a link to everyone on the council, but have not heard back.

  • “Other communities in the area make use of the technology, so it’s probably all right.” (paraphrase)

Answer: Takoma Park is not compelled to join other cities in simply doing what’s permissible; it may rightly choose to hold itself to a higher standard than that.

  • “What are you worried about?”

Answer: Where to begin — have people been paying attention for the last eight years?  Do they think it will never happen again? At any rate, here are some concerns:

  1. Forced cooperation: any stored data can be a target for forced cooperation by state or federal agencies.  We didn’t know about the FBI demanding library records until well after it happened; we still don’t know all of what was obtained via “national security letters.”    License plate scan data are (in principle) just as tempting a target.  From this point of view, not gathering them at all would be best; not storing them would be next best; and storing them for any length of time is equivalent to taping a “kick me” sign to our backs.
  2. Surveillance abuse: We’ve seen (as councilmember Josh Wright noted) that even the Maryland State Police are happy to abuse our civil liberties at the drop of a hat.  Depending on the comparison data uploaded, Takoma Park police could become a party to someone else’s bogus surveillance program, either in real time or via access to “after-action” data. Likewise, the NSA warrantless surveillance program appears to have also involved about linking surveillance data to other sources such as credit card data,  in order to “mine” the results for patterns.  License plate data (which presumably also feature time and place of the time the plate was scanned) would be a “natural” extension of such meta-snooping — and it’s likely we’d either never find out or only find out years later.
  3. False positives: either directly from a mistaken license plate scan, or indirectly from its linkage to other databases.  In this respect and others, the large numbers of license plates that can be scanned rather work against the community; the thousands of license plates scanned each day won’t just be a computer-driven, high-speed source of law enforcement “hits”, but also a computer-driven, high-speed source of law enforcement errors, lawsuits, maybe even Supreme Court cases.
  4. Unequal application: police will be tempted to focus the use of scanner-equipped patrol cars in particular areas or for particular purpose.  Even when the purpose is appropriate, people unrelated to that purpose will be swept up more in one location than in another.
  5. Inappropriate primary or secondary purposes: Events this year, connected to the Republican national convention in St. Paul, MN, have shown once again* how some local police will sometimes use a variety of surveillance tactics to intimidate protesters exercising free speech and assembly rights.  The current police force in my community might not do that; a future one would have this tool to use in harassing unwanted visitors.
  6. And oh — my constitutional rights:

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Tell me, with a straight face, that it’s reasonable for a machine to scan my license plate and everyone else’s in my traffic lane or on my street to see if we’ve broken any laws — for no other reason than that a police department bought a $25,000 machine. That’s not a reasonable search — it’s not even a reasoned search.

Tell me that it’s reasonable to store the images of scanned plates for any length of time, so I can be found in case I break the law later on.

Tell me those things and I’ll know for sure this country has changed, and changed for the worse.

* See also similar crackdowns around the country over the past years: Miami Free Trade protests, 2003; New York City RNC, 2004; Washington, DC World Bank/IMF demonstrations, 2000.

EDIT, 2/2: “checks against downloaded data,” not uploaded data.
UPDATE, EDIT, 2/4: “2 page briefing can be seen here” and link added.

7 Responses to ““The License Plate is Just the Beginning””

  1. Jason Laquatra Says:

    Criminals pass through Takoma Park every day. A device like this can be used to identify people who have committed carjackings or individuals who pose a threat to children. The objective of the PD is to offset these threats to the community, not to build a database of non-criminal activity. This tool gives police a much-needed advantage over criminals, the type of criminals who don’t think twice about stealing a car with children in it at gunpoint. Regarding false positives, law enforcement always conducts a LIVE confirmation to verify any alarm is a match before engaging in a stop. The police are out to protect you, not entrap the innocent. Tools like this help ensure that.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    I’ve now posted a 3 part email series to my neighborhood listserv that adapts and rearranges this post. No responses yet — the listserv is naturally more about contractor tips, local events, and so forth. I replaced some of the introduction above with this:

    I believe that acquiring this system should not be a done deal; deciding whether to get it — and getting it right if we do — is (or should be) a major undertaking. The City Council (not the police department) should be taking the lead in deciding whether to get it, and if so, what policies should govern its use. Some questions weren’t asked or seemed to get varying answers: does this system address a specific, compelling community need — is there a stolen vehicle crime wave I’m unaware of? Will the system be “on” all the time — a 24/7 fishing expedition — or will it be employed for particular purposes under tight control?

  3. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Jason, I didn’t see your comment until just now; first-time comments are held for approval.

    You write, “The objective of the PD is to offset these threats to the community, not to build a database of non-criminal activity,” and “The police are out to protect you, not entrap the innocent.” That is usually true of police departments, and is no doubt true of our current Takoma Park Police Department. But (1) as my examples show, it is not always true, (2) we can’t see the future, and (3) abuses of a TPPD license plate scanner system may not be due to the TPPD if they happen.

    I don’t doubt that our police department has good motives, and that there are benefits to the device. My aim was to show there are costs as well, and that motives aren’t enough; we need written procedures that are the product of thinking through every angle of the issue — assuming we’re absolutely sure we have to get the device at all. There are other ways of increasing our safety — hiring more police officers, paying them better to reduce turnover, I don’t know what all else. At any rate, I think our job as citizens is not to simply assume the best of government, but to inform ourselves fully and make sure our rights are protected.

  4. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Mr. Jason Laquatra is ELSAG’s vice president of field operations.

  5. Lisa Moscatiello Says:

    One way to approach it is to find out from the Council what safeguards are in place to prevent abuses of this system. And get specifics, and make sure to have as much as possible written into the City code. And it would be good to think about what some of the abuses might be. What are some scenarios that we can envision that might lead to this technology being used for something other than the purpose for which it is intended. For example, what would have to happen before one ends up on one of these “watch lists” Is it driving through certain neighborhoods repeatedly? Running red lights? How does one get off of these watch lists? I think the bottom line is just what you said – thinking through every angle of the issue and formulating written procedures to deal with every possible contingency. Let me see what I can find out about this.

  6. ben Masel Says:

    Data retention? the possibilities for abuse are greatly diminished by purging the record as soon as it’s established there’s no active wants on the car.

  7. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Sure — assuming they are compelled to do so. Most systems envision long data retentions — 30 days and more. Rolling access to those data by others would turn the system into a 24/7/365 retrospective surveillance system.

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