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Alameda Police Withhold Statistics on License Plate Reader Data Collection

The Alameda Police Department has refused a public records request for statistics pertaining to its Automated License Plate Reader pilot program.

The Alameda Police Department has refused a public records request for statistics pertaining to its Automated License Plate Reader pilot program.

The Alameda Police Department has refused to provide, in response to a California Public Records Act request, certain statistics pertaining to its Automated License Plate Reader technology pilot conducted last year.

In the past, police department officials have said that acquisition of the technology, which can automatically scan thousands of vehicle license plates per day, on city streets, is necessary, and that the technology is a “significant tool in the arsenal of law enforcement and public safety agencies” and can help recover stolen vehicles, by matching scanned plate numbers against stolen vehicle databases.

Officials have also said that Alameda would share data with the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC) which works vertically across government agencies “to detect, prevent, investigate and respond to criminal and terrorist activity.”

To understand the efficacy of the technology, Action Alameda News submitted a public records request to the City of Alameda, requesting:

  1. A count of the absolute number of vehicle plate scans completed from Sept 1, 2013 through Dec 31, 2103.
  2. A count of the number of stolen vehicles identified pursuant to those scans.
  3. A count of the number of suspected Al Qaeda or Al Nusra affiliated individuals identified (and/or contacted, or referred to federal authorities) pursuant to those scans in 1)

The police department responded to say only that during the pilot period from September 16, 2013 through October 14, 2013, 175,039 records were scanned.

However, the department refused to provide any additional data, saying that the statistics requested in items 2) and 3) were exempt from release, because they are “records of investigations conducted by, or records of intelligence information or security procedures.”

Police Chief Disclosed Data in October
At the October 1st, 2013 Alameda City Council meeting, when his request to seek funding to acquire license plate reader technology went before council for that body’s approval, Alameda Police Chief Paul Rolleri had said that in 97,000 scans, there were 85 vehicle “hits” – an indication of an offense to be investigated – some of which may have been duplicates.

A report by the American Civil Liberties Union, You Are Being Tracked: How License Plate Readers Are Being Used To Record Americans’ Movements provided by the City of Alameda in advance of a public forum on the planned acquisition of license plate reader technology, reports that, in a study of the use of the technology in the state of Maryland, “Maryland’s system of license plate readers had over 29 million reads. Only 0.2 percent of those license plates, or about 1 in 500, were hits. That is, only 0.2 percent of reads were associated with any crime, wrongdoing, minor registration problem, or even suspicion of a problem.”

According to the data provided to Alameda City Council in October – assuming all 85 hits reported were unique – only 0.09 percent of scans produced a hit; a comparable calculation across all scans conducted by the Alameda Police Department during the entire pilot period is not possible as the department has refused to release the data.

The Alameda Police Department previously refused a public records request from Action Alameda News for detailed scan data, saying that the data, even data for scans that do not produce a hit, is “intelligence data” pursuant to a “criminal investigation.”

Separately, a recent Truth About Privacy study by McCann Worldgroup reveals that the number one privacy fear that has increased significantly since 2011 – above the fear that companies like Google or Facebook will misuse personal data – is that the government will use people’s personal data against them in some way.

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