The California License Plate Readers Controversy
It has recently come to the attention of several lawmakers in California that more than a mere few law enforcement agencies (as well as some corporations) are scanning the license plates of the state’s motorists with license plate readers. This technology, which typically means having a camera attached to a vehicle, allows for thousands of license plates to be scanned in just a few hours. The police and law enforcement aren’t the only ones using automated license plate readers in California either. Numerous private agencies have begun using this practice. According to State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, over 30 agencies in the Bay Area are currently employing this technology.
This, of course, has brought up several issues.
License Plate Readers Violations of privacy
Are law enforcement cameras/license plate readers an invasion of privacy?
As Sen. Hill pointed out, when license plates are scanned automatically, a need to “strike a balance between privacy and safety” arises. Hill says that authorities and corporations alike record millions of vehicles through the use of these cutting-edge methods. Most of the motorists being watched are entirely unaware of it. Some disturbing reports on this issue already cropped up, such as a man in San Leandro, who discovered that the license plate of his cars had been photographed 112 times without him having so much as a clue about it or consenting to such pictures.
New legislative initiatives
To address some of the issues touched upon above, Sen. Hill came up with a legislative initiative – Senate Bill 893, referred to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary January 23. The bill aims to promote law enforcement access to such automatically collected data. However, it also brings the right to individual privacy into focus and draws attention to the fact that, at the moment, use and access to such license plate search services is unrestricted. It can be freely sold for profit and those being monitored don’t even know about it.
Hill says he understands how authorities can benefit from these new technologies: the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, for instance, managed to locate 495 stolen vehicles and 19 vehicles used in felonies. They also took 45 suspects into custody in a mere 30 days of using these automated license plate recognition technologies. For the time being, no action has been taken regarding the bill. Some law enforcement groups such as the California Peace Officers Association have opposed it. And while Hill says he understands the opposition, the aim of SB 893 is to grant the authorities more long term data storage rights while protecting private individuals against corporate abuse.
Regulating private license plate reading initiatives
While a new law, such as the above-mentioned bill, could indeed regulate the authorities’ use of such data, the issue of regulating private individuals and companies that use automated license plate readers remains unresolved. Such initiatives are popping up by the minute. According to Sen. Hill, current legal standards basically encourage private corporations to abuse the technology. Companies may store data indefinitely, grant indiscriminate access to it, provide license plate lookup services for a cost and even sell databases for profit. One such company, which sells license plate recognition and facial recognition hardware (Vigilant Solutions, based in California) also keeps a database with over 1.8 billion entries, according to the company’s own press materials. Sen. Hill explained that there is a very fine line between safety and protecting privacy – one that companies like Vigilant Solutions may have crossed at the moment.
The issue of big data collection and storage in the digital age is a sensitive one in the United States (and all over the world, really). This sensitivity is mostly due to the magnitude and implications of the Edward Snowden NSA leaks scandal. However, this doesn’t mean the U.S. Government isn’t investing in ever more ambitious data storage facilities. The Utah Data Center, for instance, alternatively referred to as the Intelligence Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center has been completed in late 2013 for the very purpose of storing massive amounts of data. Its precise mission hasn’t been officially made public. We do know the center will operate under the direction of the NSA. The structure spans between 1 and 1.5 million of square feet. An entire 100,000 square feet is dedicated to data storage per se. The remainder of the structure is taken up by tech support and administrative buildings. According to Forbes, the center’s estimated initial storage capacity stands at 3 to 12 exabytes.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that all data storage facilities run by the authorities are 100% secure. A recent case saw the police database in San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) hacked. The attack saw personal information on over 100 officers leaked to the public. The security breach was massive, and it was not the first one that BART authorities saw. One week before the attack, several local stations ceased mobile phone service, allegedly because of a protest coordinated via mobile phones. Infamous hacker collective Anonymous was listed as the prime suspect behind the attack. While this remains uncertain, one thing is for sure: a compromise in security of license plates could affect residents of California in a drastic way. The perpetrators would, of course, be in violation of currently enforced privacy laws – but perhaps the more important question at the moment is whether the authorities themselves aren’t crossing the line of legality with respect to the individuals’ right to privacy.