HOW IT’S DONE – The cops are tracking my car—and yours

 

My quest to access automatic license plate reader (LPR) records.

by  – July 18 2013, 8:00am CDT

Aurich Lawson

OAKLAND, CA—The last time the Oakland Police Department (OPD) saw me was on May 6, 2013 at 6:38:25pm.

My car was at the corner of Mandana Blvd. and Grand Ave., just blocks away from the apartment that my wife and I moved out of about a month earlier. It’s an intersection I drive through fairly frequently even now, and the OPD’s own license plate reader (LPR) data bears that out. One of its LPRs—Unit 1825—captured my car passing through that intersection twice between late April 2013 and early May 2013.

I have no criminal record, have committed no crime, and am not (as far as I know) under investigation by the OPD or any law enforcement agency. Since I first moved to Oakland in 2005, I’ve been pulled over by the OPD exactly once—for accidentally not making a complete stop while making a right-hand turn at a red light—four years ago. Nevertheless, the OPD’s LPR system captured my car 13 times between April 29, 2012 and May 6, 2013 at various points around the city, and it retained that data. My car is neither wanted nor stolen. The OPD has no warrant on me, no probable cause, and no reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing, yet it watches where I go. Is that a problem?

LPR deployments—which are rapidly expanding throughout the country to cities and towns big and small—help law enforcement officers scan license plates extremely quickly (typically, 60 plates per second) and run those against a “hot list” of cars that are wanted or stolen. The cameras themselves can be hidden inside infrastructure or mounted onto squad cars. Law enforcement agencies love them. The federal government is even encouraging local law enforcement (through federal grants) to purchase more for several thousand dollars apiece. But LPRs aren’t just looking for stolen cars; they capture every plate that they see. In some cases, they retain that plate, location, date, and time information… indefinitely.

Sid Heal is a recently retired commander who evaluated technology during his decades-long tenure at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He’s now a law enforcement consultant and told Ars last year that he’s been working with LPRs since 2005.

“It was one of the few technologies that did everything that they said it did as well as they said it did,” he said. “It staggered the imagination.”

Why does OPD hold records of my car that are more than a year old? Was that data ever accessed by or shared with the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), a federally funded “fusion center” based in San Francisco? What about other federal agencies? Since asking on July 1, 2013, the OPD has yet to respond to my follow-up questions.

In May 2013, we wrote about a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) against the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD), two of the largest local law enforcement agencies in the country. The plaintiffs asked for “all ALPR data collected or generated between 12:01am on August 12, 2012 and 11:59pm on August 19, 2012, including at a minimum, the license plate number, date, time, and location information for each license plate recorded.”

That case is still pending, but it sparked this idea: why not find out what data exists on my own car? Under the California Public Records Act, I should be able to gain access to my own data—but it turns out that getting information from regional law enforcement agencies is an exercise in both patience and frustration. I’ve spent the last two months trying to track down precisely what LPR data various law enforcement agencies around the San Francisco Bay Area (and a few in Southern California) have captured on my vehicle over the last year. This is uncommon; even here in the Bay Area with its privacy-conscious and tech-savvy users, few people appear to know just how much data the police hold on them. In many cases, I was one of just a few people (and sometimes the only person) to request such data about myself. This is what I found.

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About securityteknews
Ralph Thomas is author of over 32 books on various aspects of conducting investigations, founder and director of The National Association Of Investigative Specialists,CEO of Thomas Investigative Publications, Inc, The Spy Exchange And Security Center and SpyTek Wholesale Imports. Thomas is a member of the Executive Security Council of Griffith Colson Intelligence Service, a private intelligence agency. Thomas's latest project is NAIStv on the Griffith Media TV Network. He has also developed A Native American Store in Georgetown Texas called Tribal Impressions. You can review his person home page off of: http://www.pimall.com/thomas

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