a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Civil Liberties

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 25th September 2010

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Takoma Park police license plate scanner policy: no image storage

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 18th April 2009

The Takoma Park Police Department has issued draft guidelines for the proposed license plate scanner system that are the next best thing to no scanner at all (still my preference): the default policy will be no storage of “scan files” once a given operator’s shift is over.  From the draft:

06 Limitations on Usage:
A. Only officers or employees certified by a Command level officer will be permitted to access the Extract Downloads, develop hot lists, or operate the device. Any such operator will be required to possess authorization to access NCIC and MVA files via the MILES system. Security of the extract downloads will be consistent with other directives, rules, regulations, laws and procedures applying to the use of information from those databases, and will be the responsibility of the operator.

B. Scanning Missions will not last any longer than the shift duration of the operator. If a successive officer takes over use of the vehicle in which the ALPR Scanner is mounted, or otherwise takes over use of the device, they will initiate a new scanning mission after development of a new hot list from the latest extract downloads.

C. Scan Files developed during the mission will be deleted from the device upon completion of the operators shift.

D. It will be a violation of this policy and procedure to download any scan file, without the expressed authorization of the Chief of Police.[…]

(Emphasis added.)  The draft policy was discussed at Monday’s Takoma Park City Council meeting (video link).  Chief Ricucci had courteously sent me a copy of the draft policy a few days earlier, and I was able to propose a few suggestions to strengthen the policy during the general public comment period (and by e-mail).

Chief among these was that the police notify the City Council when the chief of police “expressly authorized” exceptions to this and other default policies (having to do with database lists provided to the scanner, and sharing data with other agencies.)  I was pleased that councilmember Josh Wright and other councilmembers took up some of these suggestions, and that police officials attending the meeting (including Chief Ricucci and Captain Coursey, who attended the forum) appeared to have no problem with them.

I remain skeptical of the need for this system and question the civic wisdom of giving such potentially sweeping surveillance power to law enforcement.  But this outcome, if it holds, is the next best thing to no scanner system at all: one that forgets what it saw at the end of the day.  I don’t like the relatively unencumbered wiggle room for downloading scan files on authorization of the chief of police, but a reporting requirement would at least give people a chance to know that was happening so they could come to a judgment about that.

I may have more to say after reviewing the video of the meeting; it isn’t crystal clear to me what will happen next.  While I’m fairly sure there will be a revised draft policy incorporating some of the suggestions made during the work session, I’m less sure whether that will lead to an immediate vote on the purchase.  It appears that the grant money for the purpose must be collected soon, so that Council — by and large, more sympathetic to the system than I am — feels an incentive to move quickly.

For now, I guess I’ll call this a small win… tempered with regret that we’re choosing to surveille ourselves this way.  But I also appreciate that my concerns were listened to, both by the police and by the City Council.

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License plates: more private than you may think

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 3rd April 2009

I’ve learned it isn’t quite true that anyone can look up anyone else’s license plate information — that is, inquire who belongs to a car with an “ABC 123” license plate that just annoyed or intrigued you.  Anyone can try, but they may well not succeed — and that has implications even for those who can look up such information.

The Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994 restricts license plate and other motor vehicle data lookups to legitimate governmental or business-related inquiries (is the fellow applying for a taxi driver or trucking job telling the truth about his driving record, etc.)  As EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center) tells it, the law was specifically written to prevent stalkers from obtaining personal information via license plate lookups — not a theoretical concern at the time.

To be sure, there are some pretty wide loopholes in the federal law: “use in the normal course of business,” “research and statistical activities,” etc.

Maryland law appears to be more restrictive.  When I tried to look up my own license plate on one of the countless online “license plate search” sites that turn up in ads when you Google “license plate”, I finally got to a screen asking me to check off one of the many federal exceptions allowing driving-related records to be released — but Maryland was not one of the states the service offered for search. (In fact, only a few states could be searched in this way, though this may be a function of the particular service I tried to use.)  The image to the right is a screen capture of what I saw; click through if you want a better look.*

More to the point, see also the MD DOT MVA “Protecting Your Privacy” page:

Your records are now automatically closed to the public unless they are requested by the police, an insurance company, a hospital or for another official business purpose.  […]

Now, without written permission from you, no one, except for those groups listed above who need this information for official business purposes, can obtain the following personal information about you from the Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA):

Personal Information:

  • Your name
  • Your address
  • Your driver’s license number
  • Your date of birth
  • Your social security number
  • Any other information that identifies you


There are law enforcement exceptions in both the Maryland and federal statutes.  But as I’ve learned, there’s a popular refrain out there that “anyone can look up a license plate,” that it’s “public,” that there’s “no expectation of privacy” when it comes to this information.  I recently organized a forum about the possible acquisition of a license plate scanner by the Takoma Park Police Department.  Here’s an exchange from that forum:
Read the rest of this entry »

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Takoma Park: stolen cars rarely noted in other crime reports

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 1st April 2009

In justifying their grant application for a license plate scanner last year, the Takoma Park Police Department wrote:

The City of Takoma Park experiences on average 165 stolen auto incidents each year.  It also has experienced 75 robberies, 142 burglaries, and over 500 larcenies each year on average over the last ten years.  In many of these cases it has been learned that the perpetrators frequently will travel to and from the crime scene in a stolen motor vehicle.

For a separate web page view of this workbook, click here.

But Takoma Park Police crime statistics do not seem to bear out a need for added surveillance technology to deal with these problems. First, the 2008 annual report, released in late January, states on page 1 that that there were 99 auto thefts in Takoma Park in 2008 — down 24% from the 130 recorded in 2007.

And while the annual report doesn’t provide the kind of detail that would be needed, a look at fourteen months worth of TPPD Police Bulletins suggests that known stolen vehicles are involved in only a small proportion of crimes: only 3.5% of assaults (2 out of 57), only 6.4% of robberies, and less than 2% of other crimes (excluding stolen cars and 5 carjackings) are reported to have involved the criminals use of a stolen car.

One reason this may be worth mentioning is because I suspect more sensational cases inevitably crowd out the less interesting ones in our memories as time goes on. Thus, someone I’ve corresponded with about this wrote to me, “In the written details of the crime advisories, almost every street robbery involves someone exiting a car and robbing someone and getting back into the car, or a robbery occurring and the robber fleeing to a get away car.”

As best as I can tell, this just isn’t so. While cases involving robberies and stolen cars are certainly reported to happen now and then, a more typical reported case sounds like this: Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted by Thomas Nephew on 2nd March 2009

A forum about the civil liberties implications of a proposed license plate scanner system (announced here, on community listservs, and on fliers) was held in Takoma Park on Wednesday, February 25, 2009.  A video of that forum was recorded and uploaded by my friend Michelle Bailey (“Takoma Videotaping“).

Forum participants included:

I’ve compiled a draft transcript of the forum.  The times there (and above) indicate the beginning of the speaker’s comments. A Q&A session began at around 42:23.

Takoma Park City Council member Terry Seamens, Public Safety Committee chair Chuck Thomas, and Takoma/Silver Spring Voice publisher/editor Eric Bond were in the audience, as were Takoma Park Police Department’s Chief Ronald Ricucci and Captain Edward Coursey.

Other resources for this forum:

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A forum on license plate scanners

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 27th February 2009

The panel

From the left: me, Sharon Bradford Franklin, senior
counsel at the Constitution Project, David Zirin
(The Nation, Campaign against the Death Penalty),
Johnny Barnes, executive director of the National
Capital Area ACLU.
Originally uploaded by Thomas Nephew
For a slideshow of all forum photos, click here.
[All photos are by Madeleine Nephew
— thank you, Maddie!]

As advertised, I was joined by Sharon Franklin, David Zirin, and Johnny Barnes on Wednesday evening for a forum about the TPPD license plate scanner proposal.  (For background, see my prior posts on this issue or this resource page.)  [UPDATE – video here] [UPDATE – transcript here]

I thank each of them very much again for coming; their discussions were on point and helpful, as was a lively question and answer period with the audience, which included one councilmember, a public safety committee chair, and — by advance request  — Chief Ricucci and Captain Coursey from the police department.

My publicity efforts were not as successful as I’d have liked, but both local press and friends were on hand; my friend Michelle videotaped the proceedings as did the ACLU; assuming there aren’t technical difficulties, that will eventually be online for others to view for themselves.

I prepared some introductory remarks.  An excerpt:

…So far, we have had an upside down process: a grant application for a device before a community decision to seek one, an agency drafting policy after the money is in hand rather than a legislative body doing so before, all before consideration of alternatives.

Some say I’m making “much ado about nothing.” I disagree, and I think after tonight many of you will as well. A decision to subject ourselves to automated surveillance ought to be a very, very hard decision, not an easy one. I think it moots the 4th Amendment and chills freedom of speech and of assembly — especially in a permissive legal environment where we will have little control or even knowledge of how that surveillance is expanded, reused, or shared with federal agencies armed with “National Security Letters.” Even if approved — as I personally hope it will not be — hard questions would remain: when and where to deploy it, which wanted tag databases to download, what kind of safeguards to set up and who will run them, what penalties to impose if those safeguards are violated.

We in Takoma Park do not need to look to what’s merely permissible to police departments. We can also say how we want our community to be, and what safeguards on our rights we will insist on.

The forum produced a few new points of specific information from my perspective.  First, Captain Coursey noted that the city attorney was looking into the question of whether data collected in this fashion could be compelled to be divulged to other agencies.

Second, Chief Ricucci and Captain Coursey appeared to me to be saying that (a) the grant application did not request funding for so-called “back office” hardware and software that would facilitate the reanalysis of stored data, and (b) that they were thereby saying they did not envision doing so.

While that was comforting to me, Captain Coursey also clearly wanted the door kept open for that, pleading for no “rush to judgment” on that score.  Also, the lack of dedicated funding for storage isn’t all that telling.  As the TPPD’s own press release last December stated, “50,000 and 60,000 plate reads equal one gigabyte of hard drive space.” Assuming the interface with the squad car device can be bridged, off-the-shelf PCs could store millions of images; assuming the scanned image tag/time/location records can be downloaded as well, even more simple data records could be stored.  The software requirements are probably not insurmountable either; a simple file/directory system might do, or records could be stored in a conventional database.

But given the open, frank, and cooperative impression both officers made on me and the rest of the audience, perhaps both the press release and the worksession discussion of storage and reanalysis were more about capabilities than firm intentions.  I’m willing to believe they don’t seek this, and that they can support an explicit “no storage” provision by City Council for the device.
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Six questions about license plate scanners

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 16th February 2009

On the neighborhood listserv, a DC police officer wrote in with factual information about how he uses a scanner in his work.  As I wrote him,

Thanks very much, [sir], for describing how the scanner / tag reader works: plates encountered by your car’s tag reader are compared to an onboard database of wanted license plates. It’s also good to know that matches are double-checked in the way you describe. Takoma Park police should no doubt do as DC police do in those respects if the city authorizes the system.

But your explanation doesn’t address some of the key civil liberties issues. Among the big questions (for me, at least) are:

(1) whether the system is always on or whether you turn it on only when you suspect a car is stolen,
(2) what happens with the images of unmatched license plates — likely 99.9% of the plates the tag reader encounters each day,
(3) recourse to the court system to safeguard against abuse,
(4) where do the lists of suspect vehicles come from — it’s not always just stolen cars,
(5) can bad guys trick the scanner, and what consequences does that have for the real value of the system, and
(6) what alternatives were considered and how the decision process should have worked.

I take up each of these questions below.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Get it right or don’t get it at all: forum on license plate scanner

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 13th February 2009

I’ve just posted this announcement to a local listserv and to facebook; more emailings will follow.


You are invited to a forum about the proposed license plate scanner acquisition by the Takoma Park Police Department. The forum will be in the Azalea Room of the Takoma Park Community Center (7500 Maple Avenue, Takoma Park, MD – map) on Wednesday, February 25, from 7-9pm.

The forum is hosted by a concerned Takoma Park citizen, Thomas Nephew, and is open to the public. Three speakers are invited:

  • Sharon Bradford Franklin, senior counsel at The Constitution Project.
    Ms. Franklin and the Constitution Project developed the “Guidelines for Public Video Surveillance” detailing model processes for considering the acquisition of video surveillance equipment, and detailing model legislation when such equipment is acquired.
  • David Zirin, an anti-death penalty activist (and writer for The Nation) unjustifiably surveilled by the Maryland State Police from 2005 to 2006.
  • Johnny Barnes, Executive Director of the National Capital Area ACLU.
    Mr. Barnes and the NCA-ACLU have been instrumental in critiquing and reining in video surveillance in the District of Columbia.

After an introduction and remarks by the speakers, there will be a question and answer discussion period. Speakers will talk about the types of questions residents should be asking, and the approach the city should take:

  • What are the civil liberties and civil rights concerns with the system?
  • What guidelines and safeguards would address those concerns? Are they available to Takoma Park?
  • What can we do?

This may seem a simple matter of law enforcement to some, and may seem like a “done deal” to others. Neither is the case. Come find out why Takoma Park should get it right — or not get it at all.


PS: Links to various background documents and web sites are collected at a “Takoma Park PD license plate scanner” page here:

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TPPD license plate scanner

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 13th February 2009

You had to live – did live, from
habit that became instinct – in
the assumption that every sound
you made was overheard, and,
except in darkness, every
movement scrutinised.

— “1984”, George Orwell

Suppose that the local police in
a particular jurisdiction were to
decide to station a police car at the
entrance to the parking lot of a
well patronized bar from 5:30 p.m.
to 7:30 p.m. every business day for
the purpose of making a list of the
license plates of cars that were
driven in and parked in the lot
during that time… I would guess
that the great majority of people
who might have the question
posed to them would say that
this is not a proper police

— William Rehnquist, 1974

They who can give up essential
liberty to obtain a little temporary
safety, deserve neither liberty
nor safety.

— Benjamin Franklin

This page is a resource page about the proposed acquisition of a license plate scanner system by the Takoma Park Police Department.  I believe there are substantive civil liberties concerns with these systems.

Takoma Park

Civil liberties, civil rights, privacy

Relevant law

Articles, opinions


  • Manufacturers: PlateScan (motto: “The License Plate is just the Beginning”), ELSAG
  • Automatic number plate recognition (Wikipedia)*
  • Evidence for counterfeit or stolen plates as car theft strategy and way of defeating scanners: UK Home Office Consultation Document, undated, response deadline 12/8/2008: “As regards misrepresentation of vehicle registration marks, we understand from the police that there has been a steady increase in the numbers using illegal number plates. Breaches of the legislation include altering the layout of letters and numerals, illegal fonts and the use of tape to change the appearance of the plate. This has significant implications for criminal investigations and crime detection, eg by Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) systems and automatic speed detection devices.” See also WSJ, BBC (via), CBS; more generally, vehicle cloning report by Natl. Insurance Crime Bureau.

* Common acronyms for these systems include ANPR (automatic number plate recognition), ALPR, LPR, (license plate), and AVI (vehicle identification).
** DPPA and MD 10-616 are mainly relevant to invasions of privacy by non-law enforcement persons — but both disprove the widespread notion that there is no expectation of privacy for license plate information.

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Takoma Park PD license plate scanner: grant application

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 11th February 2009

At my request, the city sent me a copy of the license plate scanner grant application made by the Takoma Park Police Department.  The application, made to the Maryland Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention (GOCCP), can be seen below.

TPPD license plate recognition scanner grant application (click expansion icon at upper right for better view)

In the following, I make a few comments about the application. While I have criticisms, I don’t want readers to think I’m imputing bad motives or bad faith to the Takoma Park Police Department. The goal of recovering stolen cars is sensible, of course. But as written, the application goes beyond that in some ways, and makes no provision for civil liberties concerns or procedures.
Read the rest of this entry »

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