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Never mind the drones: The SPD already knows where you've been

License plate scanners are recording the whereabouts of your car. Who can access this information? Probably anyone.
SPD Automatic License Plate Recognition cameras atop a squad car.

SPD Automatic License Plate Recognition cameras atop a squad car. Photo: Flickr user pmocek

Seattle and Metro Transit police will step up their public-safety efforts along Third Avenue.

Seattle and Metro Transit police will step up their public-safety efforts along Third Avenue. eyemage/Flickr

The Seattle Police Department's acquisition of airborne surveillance drones last year caused an uproar. Yet largely without protest, the SPD, like other urban police departments across the country, has deployed another surveillance technology to amass a vast amount of information that can reveal who is travelling where in the city, regardless of whether or not they are suspected of a crime.

The technology is automatic license plate recognition (ALPR), which uses cameras linked to computers to scan license plates by the thousands, check them against "offender" databases and log their location, date and time. Some police departments keep that information indefinitely; Seattle says it retains the information for 90 days.

As of last week, the SPD had 1,716,908 license plate scans in its systems, according to a department spokesperson. The department uses a fleet of 12 vehicles, both in patrol and parking enforcement operations, which routinely scan and record license plates all over the city. The purchase of ALPR equipment for the SPD was funded, at least in part, by $132,268 in federal government Justice Assistance Grants, according to the department.

The department uses the data to find stolen vehicles, to "e-chalk" cars and write overtime parking tickets, and in the city's relatively new "scofflaw" program that locks a boot on cars whose owners have four or more unpaid parking tickets. The department also uses the data for other purposes, according to spokesman Sean Whitcomb, "If there is an investigative need for it, we use it."

The number of vehicles identified by the police as suspect through ALPR systems is small in comparison to the giant amounts of information the systems ingest and record about ordinary people who have done nothing wrong. It is the lack of legal controls and potential for abuse of that data that has raised concern among privacy and civil liberty advocates.

Vehicle registration data (the name and address of the person who owns a vehicle) is deemed private by Washington state law, but the license plate numbers themselves and their geographic locations are public information, which means that anyone could request the data from the police department through a public disclosure request. After all, you can walk down the street and collect license plate numbers in public. It is the technological change of scanning them by the thousands and amassing longitudinal databases that amounts to a new kind of surveillance via "big data."

As part of an ongoing investigation of the topic, Crosscut News aims to find out how extensive ALPR is, how easy it is to get that data in Seattle and how much it can reveal. Crosscut has made a public disclosure request to the SPD to obtain the department's entire database, all 1.7 million license plate "reads." We aim to see what type of information is collected, in what quantities and how frequently a typical vehicle's location is recorded when travelling throughout the city. The SPD has said that it will respond to our request by February 13th.

Our request was modeled after similar requests the ACLU has made in 38 states. The ACLU of Washington made such a request in 2010 and received data that included license plate numbers according to Doug Klunder, spokesperson for the Washington State chapter, who added that "it was extensive" but they have no plans to make it public.

What kind of information might the data reveal? More than you might expect. An investigation by the StarTribune in Minneapolis used ALPR data to show the whereabouts of Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak's city-owned car. An investigation by a Los Angeles paper showed how data is collected and aggregated by federal agencies, some of whom funded the acquisition of such equipment by local police forces in the first place. Elsewhere, private sector "repo men" have obtained ALPR data from police departments to find vehicles they seek to repossess.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Jan 24, 1:59 p.m. Inappropriate

Good story, and another scary step forward in the technologically driven Orwellian progression of modern society. I assume the Seattle Fusion Center has a direct feed?

I look forward to hearing about what you find in the parsing. How to choose who to track?

And what a business plan in the making! A private company could use that information for an incredible array of monetized streams, similar to what is already done with assessor records in the real estate market but with broader potential. Surely, someone is already doing this, or positioning themselves to monetize that information stream. Can you submit an Open Records Request to determine who else is accessing this information? And then, too, could this be a potential boon to sophisticated criminal enterprise ... unless perhaps new restrictions on access to public information being considered this legislative session are passed. Could this be used as justification for that, and at what expense to access of public records in other areas?

This issue raises many questions. Glad I donated to Crosscut, this is exactly the kind of journalism that is needed in the shrinking and increasingly consolidated media field. Thanks for stepping up!

tom_hyde

Posted Thu, Jan 24, 3:25 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree with tom_hyde. I was aware of the program, and I had my concerns. However, I had missed the FOIA aspect.

Posted Thu, Jan 24, 4:12 p.m. Inappropriate

There must be a way to put some type of screen over our license plates so cameras cannot record the plates, yet a real person could still see them fine. Legal? If not, it should be.

Big Brother is not behind us, he's on top of us.

The FOIA aspect is right on target. I can't think of a legal reason why someone couldn't obtain a record of who else is accessing this information.

Posted Thu, Jan 24, 7:13 p.m. Inappropriate

Is this part of the "community policing" they keep extolling?

nordy

Posted Thu, Jan 24, 9:44 p.m. Inappropriate

To read about the bit of research into SPD's ALPR program I did just after taking the photo in this article in 2011, see "SPD’s use of license plate scanners: Auto theft investigation or fishing expedition?" http://mocek.org/blog/2011/02/13/spds-use-of-license-plate-scanners-auto-theft-investigation-or-fishing-expedition/

pmocek

Posted Fri, Jan 25, 7:58 a.m. Inappropriate

I thought ALPR was being used to identify vehicles with 4 or more unpaid parking tickets so they could be cited under the scofflaw ordinance enacted in 2011. I was not aware of the other uses and possible abuses of the data.

Good job Crosscut for investigating this.

nwcitizen

Posted Fri, Jan 25, 11:58 a.m. Inappropriate

Important work here, Crosscut. Keep it up!

AHoffman

Posted Fri, Jan 25, 8:48 p.m. Inappropriate

Twenty-something years ago, any stalker could with a license-plate number and simple request to the state Dept of Licensing obtain the name and address of a car's owner. Governments' attention to privacy and personal safety always lags behind their collection of data.
One more reason not to drive. Now are Sound Transit and Metro compiling similar databases of Orca Pass taps?

Posted Sat, Jan 26, 3:21 a.m. Inappropriate

I bet they are. They also have all the cameras on the buses. Facial recognition going to the Fusion Center? The Homeland Security Industrial Complex. I feel safer already.

jhande

Posted Sat, Jan 26, 10:07 a.m. Inappropriate

Good to Go :))

tom_hyde

Posted Sat, Jan 26, 1:41 p.m. Inappropriate

to answer your question, common1sense, a spray product advertised in the back pages of Car and Driver is invisible to the naked eye however difuses light so that a picture of your plate is just fuzzy white. i do not advocate this necessarily, as i am not sure how it would work if you used a good to go pass but your license was unreadable, just reporting that there are products out there to hide your license if you want

katzjamr

Posted Sun, Jan 27, 1:03 p.m. Inappropriate

In the news today: Interesting to note that snapshots from red light cameras (two dozen of those camera in Seattle) cannot be used by police in criminal investigations, or for anything other than traffic violations. A bill in the Legislature now would allow expanded police use with a search warrant.

tom_hyde

Posted Sun, Jan 27, 3:39 p.m. Inappropriate

@ katzjamr, thanks.

I don't plan to use it, at least not yet. I'm really uncomfortable being watched, no matter how innocuous the watching is claimed to be.

Posted Tue, Jan 29, 11:50 a.m. Inappropriate

ALPR is used in electronic toll collection as well. One Florida road toll collection agency I visited in the past few years was maintaining a data base of photo images of the entire back end of the vehicles that passed under its data collection tolling gantries, to compensate and work around obscured license plate images because of mud, "spray products," bicycle racks, or whatever.

Are electronic toll tag readings in Washington State correlated in databases with license plate readings correlated with owner home addresses? Surely so, and properly limited in use by law and regulations, I hope and suppose, until I read otherwise in Crosscut.

When I observed a readily-visible security monitoring room for the Mexico City subway system, it was evident to me that semi-automated face recognition was being used to nab, or track, various bad guys who were spotted. Or something like that. I didn't knock on the glass and ask questions, because I don't speak Spanish.

Public interest, citizen-supported, media-reported efforts to understand and put limits on surveillance technology use is important for freedom in our country, so kudos to Crosscut.

jniles

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