Letter to the Editor: License plate readers are ineffective, invade privacy

Letter to the Editor: License plate readers are ineffective, invade privacy

Letters to the Editor

Editor's note: This letter was originally addressed to Mayor Marie Gilmore and members of the City Council; The Alamedan is running it with the author's permission.

"He was literally driving down the street and got a hit on a car stolen out of San Mateo County," said the acting police chief. What was not stated was the number of license plates tracked that weren't stolen but whose identity, geographic location and time of day were. Also not stated was that less than one percent of the license plates scanned by such systems result in a hit of stolen cars and wanted criminals.

On the consent calendar for the October 1 city council meeting is a recommendation to authorize the Alameda Police Department to seek grant funding for the purchase and implementation of automated license plate recognition systems (ALPRs). Before you provide the authorization, I strongly recommend that you enact an ordinance to make sure there are rules in place to protect the citizens of Alameda from the abuses that will inevitably result from a massive database documenting our travels. I specifically point to John Russo's recommendation for the system regarding the data collected that will be incorporated into the much larger "fusion center" known as the NCRIC database, which, in turn, is retained for 12 months.

The acting chief stated he didn't have data demonstrating the success of such systems. As such, this seems to be a "me, too" request; i.e., police departments in all 50 states (including the CHP) are currently using the system. There is clearly an irresistible lure of such technology that becomes menacing when coupled with the insatiable appetite of the government for information. But studies show no reduction in crime due to the technology!

Indeed, a study by the U.S. Department of Justice's own National Institute of Justice has found no evidence that ALPRs actually reduce crime. (See https://www.crimesolutions.gov/ProgramDetails.aspx?ID=318.) The only difference was found to be in the recovery of stolen vehicles, but that difference was described in the study as "a small, statistically significant difference." All this technology collection is on the vast majority of innocent people, all without a warrant.

The key issue with ALPRs is not only the lack of effectiveness in reducing crime, but the length of time that location data about innocent people is retained. As you can see from the chart above, retention periods vary from as short as 48 hours to indefinite.

If ALPRs are proven to be an effective law enforcement tool, such a system in Alameda must be used without creating a database of innocent people's movements. Data retention periods should be measured in hours or days, not months or, as Mr. Russo recommends, a year so that databases are not created in the first place.

Furthermore, ALPR data is shared with other counties and potentially the federal intelligence community through a "fusion center." The U.S. Senate concluded in 2012 that fusion centers fail to make us safer, tend to be mismanaged, and needlessly intrude on Americans' privacy. (See http://www.coburn.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?a=Files.Serve&File_id=2e7f....) The suggestion that counties are sharing data en mass is particularly troubling.

Lastly are the chilling effects of ALPRs. Tracking endangers our rights of protests and association and has the potential to reach deeply into our lives. The data potentially allows authorities to track the movements of anyone who drives a car. Knowing or suspecting that we're being watched can have the effect of stopping us from engaging in certain kinds of behavior, even when it's perfectly lawful. Surveillance changes the way we make daily decisions. I'm certain that every one of you on the council has felt nervous when you see a rapidly approaching police car in your rear view mirror - even when you're driving completely lawfully.

Indeed, the International Association of Chiefs of Police noted that individuals may become "more cautious in the exercise of their protected rights of expression, protest, association, and political participation" due to ALPRs (see http://www.theiacp.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=N%2BE2wvY%2F1QU%3D&tabi...). These infringements on our privacy are potentially a greater danger to society than the dangers they are supposed to protect us from. As the ACLU has so well expressed: "Driving may be a privilege, but privacy is a right."

Richard M. Hausman


Submitted by coulditbe2 (not verified) on Tue, Oct 1, 2013

Often results in reduction of crime rates is waved about (short term picture) but closure/conviction rates are never mentioned. As the long term higher closure rates occur over time incidence will diminish. Just for the record some of the largest ALPR data bases at present are being generated and retained by private companies.