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Alameda Police Consider All License Plate Scan Data to be Intelligence Information, Supporting Criminal Investigations

The Alameda Police department considers license plate scan data to be "intelligence information."

The Alameda Police department considers license plate scan data to be “intelligence information.”

Just by legally driving your own car in Alameda and having it scanned by an automated license plate reader (ALPR) makes you the subject of a criminal investigation, even if you’ve done nothing wrong. That’s the upshot of a letter from the Alameda Police Department refusing access under the California Public Records Act to data produced by an Alameda Police field trial of the technology.

On October 2nd, the Alameda Police Department refused an Action Alameda News request for “an electronic copy of all data and records produced in the month of September, 2013, by the Automated License Plate Recognition system including scan detail records that reflect a scan of a license plate and corresponding detail data, such as, but not limited to any plate number, date, time, GPS coordinates, street address or location, and other pertinent data.”

The department refused to provide any records citing California Government Code Sections 6254(k) and Evidence Code Section 1040, which provides an exemption from release records “…in the interest of justice.”

The police department has asked Alameda City Council for approval to seek grant funding for the purchase and deployment of Automated License Plate Reader technology, citing its abilities to efficiently and cost-effectively identify stolen vehicles. According to the October 1st department report to Council, the technology can scan as many as 1,800 plates per minute, or thousands per day, meaning that the vast majority of plates scanned represent drivers that have committed no crime.

License Plate Scan Records are Evidence, Intelligence Information
However the Alameda Police Department refuses to release those records under the Evidence Code, and additional codes, effectively saying that every time a vehicle is scanned, the vehicle and the driver are under investigation, even if they have done nothing to raise suspicion.

The police department also cited Government Code Section 6254(f) which saying that, “To the extent that ALPR data is contained in investigative reports or is considered intelligence information, the Department is exempt from disclosure [of the data.]”

Alameda police have already indicated their intention to share data from a purchased and operational license plate reader system with the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), the website for which explains that its purpose is “to, detect, prevent, investigate and respond to criminal and terrorist activity…”

The California Public Records Act does not require a public agency to withhold records by claiming exemptions – agencies can waive exemptions and release records in response to requests. The act does require the agency to provide assistance to identify records and information relevant to a request.

The Alameda Police Department released no records in response to our request, and offered no assistance in identifying records that might be released, for example, scan detail for vehicles that were not stolen or otherwise involved in a crime.

As a result, the police department is apparently treating all license plate scan records – even those of vehicles and drivers not otherwise suspected of criminal activity – as criminal or terrorist “intelligence information” and “evidence” that, if released to the public, would endanger public safety.

Likewise, the department justified its refusal on a California Vehicle Code Section that prohibits the release of photographs made by an automated enforcement system; the department might have offered to release records sans the photographs from the plate reader system, but did not.

Riverside County Sheriff’s Department Releases Records
In contrast, last year, the Riverside County, California, Sheriff’s Department released license plate scan records, minus geographic coordinates, to Wall Street Journal reporters writing a story about the implications of the technology.

Also in Southern California, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are suing two Los Angeles-area law enforcement agencies for refusing to release license plate scan records in response to a public records request.

Linda Lye, Staff Attorney for the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, told Action Alameda News, “ALPR records should be made available to the public under the Public Records Act. This is important information that sheds light on the government’s surveillance practices. It’s possible to disclose the documents in a way that balances transparency and privacy concerns of individual drivers. Privacy is a shield against intrusive government practices. The government should not be using ‘privacy’ to prevent us from learning about the creepy ways it’s invading our privacy.”

By e-mail, Action Alameda News asked Mayor Marie Gilmore and Councilmembers Lena Tam, Tony Daysog, Stewart Chen and Marilyn Ashcraft, as well as City Manager John Russo and Deputy City Manager Alex Nguyen if it was the intent of the City of Alameda to effectively criminalize drivers in Alameda by scanning their license plate, capturing and holding the data, and refusing to release it.

Nobody has responded yet.

Addendum – Jennifer Lynch, Staff Attorney, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) responded to our request for comment after the initial publication of this article, saying:

If you look at the case law around the California Public Records Act, I don’t believe they can withhold all of the data – particularly the data for vehicles not implicated in a crime – under the exemptions they cite.

My big concern, and the concern of the EFF and the ACLU in our case in Southern California is how revealing this data is, and how long it is retained by law enforcement. Some agencies store this data indefinitely. Over time, someone with access to the data could develop a complete picture of a subject’s life – where they pray, where their doctor is, their political affiliations, everything. The data can be abused – in that Wall Street Journal article, it references a case in Washington D.C. where a police lieutenant was recording license plate numbers outside of a gay bar, and blackmailing the owners.

1 comment to Alameda Police Consider All License Plate Scan Data to be Intelligence Information, Supporting Criminal Investigations

  • Jean

    How do we put a stop to our government stripping our rights of privacy away with the government’s justification that intelligence information collection is for all of our safety not government profiling?