September 13, 2012

APLR’s also used by Washoe County, Boulder City, Henderson, with Reno Considering it

LAS VEGAS, NV – Several law enforcement agencies in Nevada have responded to the request by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada for documents related to the acquisition and use of automatic license plate readers (ALPR) that can be used for important purposes, such catching a fleeing suspect, to tracking and recording the movements of huge numbers of innocent Americans going about their daily business.

The Highway Patrol Division told the ACLU of Nevada that the federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s Nevada High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HILDTA) program “assigned four mobile Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs) in August 2009 to the NHP Interdiction Task Force Team,” that NHP itself does not own any ALPRs, and that data collected by those four ALPRs is forwarded to the DEA, which keeps the data for 180 days. Hence, the Nevada High Patrol claims that it doesn’t have any records related to procuring and/or using ALPR technology, or accessing or sharing data collected by it. The NHP went so far as to claim that it “does not have any training material used to instruct members in ALPR deployment, data management, or operation of automated records systems that contain ALPR data.”

The Office of Criminal Justice Assistance of the Nevada Department of Public Safety reported that the only Nevada law enforcement agency that has requested funding for an ALPR system has been the Boulder City Police Department; it was granted $8,618 to partially pay for such a system from the Justice Assistance Grant program of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (otherwise known as “the stimulus package”). The Boulder City Police Department subsequently paid $23,725 for an MPH-900 ADM3 Split Camera (an ALPR system). The ACLU of Nevada has not submitted a public records request directly to the Boulder City Police Department.

The Reno City Attorney’s office told the ACLU of Nevada that the Reno Police Department does not currently use any APLR system, but that “we are in the process of negotiating a user agreement with the State of Nevada to allow for such technology” and that the Reno Police Department may have relevant information available within 60-90 days after the city’s August 17 letter to the ACLU of Nevada.

The Henderson Police Department, which announced in mid-2011 that it had made its first arrest through using ALPR systems, provided the ACLU of Nevada with extensive documentation of its purchase, implementation, training, etc., of APLR technology and storage of resulting data. The Henderson Police Department told the ACLU of Nevada that its nine ALPR systems have read about 945,000 license plates since June 15, 2011. The department said it keeps gathered license plate data for only 60 days.

The Washoe County District Attorney’s office, responding to the ACLU of Nevada on behalf of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office (“WCSO”), said: “WCSO has two ALPR which are attached to marked patrol vehicles. These machines were purchased by the federal government and are in a testing phase. I have been informed that these systems are inoperable nearly as often as they work. The ALPR scans every license plate for characters, not state. If there is any outstanding criminal activity, such as a warrant, the system sends a picture of the license plate and the vehicle so that the deputy knows if he has the correct automobile. The information of the scanned plate goes back to a database maintained by the federal government. That information is retained for 90 days. WCSO does not maintain this information in any separate database that it, or any other agency, can access. However, the ALPR is also a self-contained unit that retains scanned license plates for a period of 2 years. As a practical matter, only the deputy assigned to the vehicle would access those records.”

As of Sept. 13, the ACLU of Nevada had received no response to its public records request to the Metro Las Vegas Police Department.

The ACLU of Nevada was one of 38 state ACLU affiliates (including Washington DC) that on or about July 31, 2012, sent 587 requests to local police departments and state agencies that demand information on how they use automatic license plate readers (ALPR) to track and record Americans’ movements. (On the same day, 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.)

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT:

ALPRs are cameras mounted on stationary objects (telephone poles, the underside of bridges, etc.) or on patrol cars. The cameras snap a photograph of every license plate that passes them by – capturing information on up to thousands of cars per minute. The devices convert each license plate number into machine-readable text and check them against agency-selected databases or manually-entered license plate numbers, providing an alert to a patrol officer whenever a match or “hit” appears.

When the ALPR system captures an image of a car, it also meta-tags each file with the GPS location and the time and date showing where and when the photograph was snapped. And often, the photograph—not just the plate number—is also stored. The system gathers this information on every car it comes in contact with, not simply those to which some flag or “hit” was attached.

Again, when used in a narrow and carefully regulated way, ALPRs can help police recover stolen cars and arrest people with outstanding warrants.

Unfortunately, law enforcement agencies are increasingly moving towards a “keep everything, share widely” formula concerning ALPR data. The biggest problem with ALPR systems is the creation of databases with location information on every motorist who encounters the system, not just those whom the government suspects of criminal activity. Police departments nationwide are using ALPR to quietly accumulate millions of plate records, storing them in backend databases. While the ACLU doesn’t know the full extent of this problem, the ACLU knows that responsible deletion of data is the exception, not the norm. Only two states have passed legislation barring the retention of “non-hit” plate data for extended periods. On the other hand, the ACLU knows for certain that some departments in states other than Nevada are eagerly engaging in this surreptitious data collection.

As license plate location data accumulates, the system ceases to be simply a mechanism enabling efficient police work and becomes a warrantless tracking tool, enabling retroactive surveillance of millions of people.

Location information can reveal deeply sensitive and intimate details of our lives. As the International Association of Chiefs of Police has put it, “mobile LPR cameras may collect the license plate numbers of vehicles parked at locations that, even though public, might be considered sensitive, such as doctor’ offices, clinics, churches, and addiction counseling meetings, among others.”

In a case in which law enforcement agents attached a GPS device to a car and tracked it for 28 days, Justice Alito explained that “society’s expectation has been that law enforcement agents and others would not—and indeed, in the main, simply could not—secretly monitor and catalogue every single movement of an individual’s car for a very long period.” ALPR systems pose the same risk, except they involve tracking all of us rather than specifically targeted individuals.

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