Santa Cruz officials, locals and others weigh in on implementing Automatic License Plate Readers
It had been a bright day in September and the clocks were striking 8 p.m. “You’ve had a long day,” said the man in the police uniform. It was Sept. 10, 2013, and the Santa Cruz City Council was about to hear Deputy Chief of Police Steve Clark request that a $37,000 Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) from the Bureau of Justice be approved to purchase Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs) for the Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD).
Also called license scanners, ALPRs are cameras that photograph all automobile license plates within range. ALPRs also record time, date and GPS location and have a second camera that photographs the entire car, sometimes including the surrounding area and people inside or near the car. Accessed days or years later, the data can create a map of where a person has been, and with whom.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reports that license scanners are being used to monitor millions of people who aren’t suspected of crimes and that the data is saved and shared with great potential for political and religious repression. Dave Maass, spokesperson for nonprofit digital privacy advocates Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) tells GT, “When license readers record information about every license plate over a period of days, weeks or longer, it starts to make it possible for the government to put together a very detailed picture of what everybody who owns a car is doing on a day-to-day basis. It only takes a few individual data points to start to reveal very personal information about a person.” The underlying concern about license scanners and other government monitoring is that it undermines privacy and the free exchange of ideas.
The surveillance devices are mounted on police vehicles (“mobile”) or on bridges, streetlights or practically anywhere (“fixed locations”). While some law enforcement agencies erase ALPR data daily, others keep millions of pieces of data indefinitely. Police in Milpitas, a city suberb about the size of Santa Cruz, collect about one million photos a year of their 68,000 residents and keep the data for two years.
“We’ve decided we want to utilize ALPR technology,” said Deputy Chief Clark, who described license scanners as “a technology that we feel is right for Santa Cruz at this time.”
There seemed to be no major resistance from city council members. One councilmember, David Terrazas, asked how many scanners the police wanted. “Milpitas has eight mobile units. We’d like eight and then we’ll look at the effectiveness of fixed locations,” answered Clark.
One Santa Cruz citizen spoke against the proposal and one in favor. Kem Akol told the council, “It’s too bad. It’s kind of spying. But we have way too much happening that’s bad. We’ve got to do something about it.”
The city council voted unanimously to approve the purchase of license scanners. There was no discussion of how the data would be stored, for how long, or who would have access to it. At press time, there had been no record that the scanners had actually been purchased.
EFF’s Dave Maass intuited: “If Santa Cruz is like other areas, it’s possible the government didn’t think too hard about the privacy implications before giving the approval.”
Five-time former mayor of Santa Cruz Mike Rotkin, who tells GT his phone was bugged when local law enforcement monitored his anti-war activities in the ’70s, says he would support, “a narrow capture of data for a limited time, for use by local police only. If there were no civil liberties concerns, then more data is better. But criminal justice has to be balanced against the idea of everyone being tracked all the time.”
Rick Walker, local musician and founder of the international looping festival, sent a strongly worded letter to the council asking them to reverse their decision on license readers. “Our increasing lack of privacy in this country and constant erosion of civil rights is becoming frightening,” he wrote. “There is no need to increase the surveillance of citizens in this town. This sets a very, very dangerous precedent and I encourage you all to please consider rescinding this acceptance of federal grant money.”
Two of seven city council members were willing to communicate with GT about the new surveillance devices and both were unfamiliar with civil rights concerns of the ACLU and EFF or how the license scanners function. They also had not considered the possibility that introducing license scanners would increase the likelihood that more advanced surveillance tools may follow—including facial recognition, iris scanners and drones. SCPD spokesperson Steve Clark did not agree to multiple requests for an interview.
When GT asked Councilmember Don Lane what effect the scanners might have on Santa Cruzans, he replied, “I don’t know enough about the technology.”
Councilmember Micah Posner was also unaware of privacy issues that could be related to collecting and storing data from license scanners. He tells GT: “I was asleep at the wheel. The council didn’t get much correspondence about the potential for the erosion of civil rights that these kinds of devices can cause.”
Posner’s vote was based on the police presentation. “I heard from the police that it would be helpful in catching car thieves and other criminals … If I’d been better informed about [the ALPRs] I may have voted against the purchase. But I feel pretty confident I wouldn’t have prevailed.”
In his appeal for the scanners, Deputy Chief Clark invoked recent violence that has shaken Santa Cruz including the murder of Joey Mendoza in 2012. Clark said, “Much of our crime is vehicle born, including gang crime.” He also explained that car thefts had risen 42 percent in 2012, with another 16 percent increase on top of that during the first six months of 2013.
The 2013 murder of two Santa Cruz police officers—Sgt. Loran “Butch” Baker and Det. Elizabeth Butler—and their assailant, Jeremy Goulet may have affected choices about safety and policing, but there is no verification that it also factored into the decision to purchase the scanners.
The city council heard just one point of view on ALPRs before voting.
“If you’re pointing out that City Council discourse is weighted toward the staff [i.e. SCPD] over the general populace, then I agree. It’s always been like that,” reflects Councilmember Posner. “Unless an item is deemed controversial, there’s not an effort to solicit other feedback. When there is feedback that’s different than the staff opinion, it’s hardly ever given equal weight to the staff opinion.”
In San Leandro …
Surveillance technology has flourished dramatically over the last decade and digital technology has given secret monitoring a great leap forward, allowing for massive data collection on practically everyone. In regard to the ALPR technology, when a license plate is scanned and it matches a police “hit list,” an alert is triggered and police contact the driver. The problem, some feel, is that the technology isn’t designed to identify just hot-list cars. The scanner photographs all cars multiple times and police often accumulate millions of images and location/time data points. Often police share the data with other agencies, too, making it possible for authorities to go back and review a kind of time-travel map of anyone. Many police departments in the United States decide without community input on how long to store the data and who has access to it. Like in Santa Cruz, sometimes there is no public discussion until after the devices have been approved. New York’s Buffalo News (Jan. 23, 2014) reports that police installed license scanners without the knowledge of their city’s Common Council.
“Law enforcement agencies say, ‘There isn’t a law that addresses this technology so we’re going to use it to the largest, most invasive extent possible. Then if people complain about it, let’s see them try to create a law to reign it in,’” explains EFF’s Maass. “It’s a lot harder to take away a law enforcement tool than to give a law-enforcement tool. It’s a purchase-first, ask-questions-later sort of mentality,” he says, particularly when the money comes from federal grants.
In San Leandro, Calif., the use of license scanners was a well-kept secret from 2008 to 2010, until Mike Katz-Lacabe asked for the photos that had been taken of him. As a school board member in San Leandro since 2006, Katz-Lacabe is used to a certain lack of privacy. But he was surprised when he saw the images that had been taken of him and his family with police ALPRs.
“It included about 112 images of my two cars taken over the two-year period that they’d retained records at that point,” he explains.
He noted that many ALPR devices have two cameras. “An infrared camera to capture the license plate number and another one to capture a picture of the vehicle and the surrounding area,” says Katz-Lacabe. “One of the pictures I received is timed perfectly as me and my daughters were getting out of the car in our driveway. You can clearly see my two young daughters getting out of the backdoors of the car and me getting out the front door. That was an eye-opening picture of me in my driveway.
“At that point our police department was retaining that information indefinitely,” he adds. “Every record they had ever gathered with that scanner system was still in the database.”
In 2012, San Leandro changed its data storage policies.
“The police chief announced the retention policy had been reduced from indefinitely to one year,” explains Katz-Lacabe. “The change was made without any public input. It didn’t come about due to any awareness of our city council. It came about largely because of the decision to start sharing data with the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC).”
NCRIC is one of 78 governor-designated and Department of Homeland Security fusion centers in the United States for storing and sharing data.
“Brian Rodriguez, from the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, came to a city council meeting and said, ‘We’re gathering information about people who haven’t been charged with a crime yet’—yet,” says Katz-Lacabe. “It speaks of a surveillance system where all this information is being gathered, and as soon as you’re suspected of a crime, they basically have a time machine to go back and determine where you were at any particular time.”
Mike Sena, NCRIC director told GT, “We have about 10 million license plates in the system from 200 law enforcement agencies from Monterey County to the Oregon border.”
Sena explained that the data is stored at the San Francisco Federal Building for one year unless it’s linked to an ongoing investigation. “My staff has had contact with SCPD but we don’t have any data-sharing agreement yet,” he says.
Though photographing all cars may help police solve crimes—Sacramento’s Probation Department recently retrieved its 300th vehicle using ALPR technology—the ACLU, EFF and others are concerned that new surveillance technologies embody a dystopian potential for “pervasive and permanent monitoring.” Though license scanners can help identify cars with unpaid tickets and stolen cars, an ACLU study shows that the ratio of data collected to hits is low; 0.01 percent for Rhinebeck, N.Y., and 0.2 percent for Maryland, where 29 million license plate reads occurred in 2012 with only 1 in 500 being hits. Broken down: for every 1 million plates read in Maryland, 47 were associated with “serious crimes” (see graph).
Concerns from the ACLU were published in a 34-page report titled “You Are Being Tracked: How License Plate Readers Are Being Used To Record Americans’ Movements.” One section notes, “License plate readers would pose few civil liberties risks if they only checked plates against hot lists and these hot lists were implemented soundly. But these systems are configured to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location where all vehicles are seen—not just the data of vehicles that generate hits. All of this information is being placed into databases, and is sometimes pooled into regional sharing systems.”
The comprehensive report also states, “License plate readers can be used for tracking people’s movements for months or years on end, chilling the exercise of our cherished rights to free speech and association.” According to the report, police in Brookline, Mass., retain data for 14 days, Tiburon, Calif., for 30 days, and Jersey City, N.J. for five years.
Neither Santa Cruz city councilmember interviewed by GT nor City Manager Martin Bernal had read any part of the ACLU report. Bernal did tell GT, “We’re not purchasing them [ALPRs] to spy on people. It’s for crime prevention purposes.”
The ACLU report also quoted a 2009 study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police that warned of infringements on civil rights: “The risk is that individuals will become more cautious in the exercise of their protected rights of expression, protest, association, and political participation because they consider themselves under constant surveillance.”
“Any technology that’s going to be used to track members of the public in a comprehensive way should be subject to public discussion and oversight,” advises Chris Conley, policy attorney with the Technology and Civil Liberties Project of the ACLU of Northern California. “It shouldn’t be, ‘We’ll get the data first and figure out later how to protect the data.’
“That needs to be part of the plan at the very beginning,” explains Conley, who used to be a software developer.
Steve Pleich, vice president of the Santa Cruz chapter of the ACLU, echoes these concerns. “What bothers me is the batch gathering of information,” he says. “We live in this information age where so much data is gathered without a clear idea of how long it will be stored and how the data will be used over time.”
EFF’s Maass tells GT, “If license scanners catch you in the morning, at lunch and in the evening, someone could start to put together where you work and where you live. It could also capture what doctor you go to, what church you attend, [or] whether you’re part of some rehabilitation group like AA.”
Mike Katz-Lacabe adds, “That information—much like the NSA’s program that gathers metadata about phone calls—is extremely powerful. It can determine perhaps whether you were at a medical marijuana dispensary, a political protest, or if, perhaps, you’re spending time with someone who is not your spouse. All of the information is collected from people who have not been suspected of, or charged with, any crime.”
Currently Alameda is considering ALPRs, and Mayor Marie Gilmore tells GT that her main concerns are “how the data is stored and used and who has access to it and the length of time data is stored.”
She says that a community forum on these matters is in the works. In the meantime, Alameda Police have tested ALPRs without community input. “We were testing one to try to judge its effectiveness and we recovered a stolen car in the first day it was used,” says Mayor Gilmore. According to The Alamedan newspaper, police scanned 97,000 license plates and had 85 “hits” during that trial period.
In Santa Cruz there have been three experiments with ALPRs, though not by police. Public Works Director Mark Dettle tells GT that the department used a scanner for a year, eight years ago. “We had one camera on a parking enforcement vehicle. It wasn’t working up to the level that we had expected so we didn’t purchase the equipment. The computer was over-heating.”
The Parking Services Division of Public Works purchased an LPR device in 2004 for “limited parking enforcement and scofflaw enforcement,” according to Marlin Granlund, manager of the city’s Parking Program. In March of 2012 another LPR device was used for one week. “It was on loan from Genetech. SCPD was not involved with this testing and did not have access to the data,” explains Granlund.
Additionally, Dettle says that all government surveillance cameras in Santa Cruz are operated by Public Works with access given to SCPD. Emails released to GT by SCPD show that the police intend on sharing license scanner information with Public Works to find cars with multiple unpaid tickets.
San Diego and Surveillance
When San Diego resident Michael Robertson asked for photos that license scanners had taken of his car, police refused. “They quoted a portion of California law that says that they don’t have to turn over records that are part of an ongoing investigation. In their view we are all under investigation at all times.
“I’m hoping to force them to make this data public,” he adds. “We’ll hopefully shut down this program.”
ACLU attorney Chris Conley tells GT, “The argument that San Diego is offering is that everyone is a suspect and every photo is part of an ongoing criminal investigation. That means there’s no boundary to police authority.”
The mayor of Minneapolis, R.T. Rybak, also recently became interested in license scanners. An Aug. 12, 2013, article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune titled “Surveillance of License Plates by MPD” included a map of 41 locations the mayor’s city-owned vehicle had been scanned during one year. After the map was published, Mayor Rybak expressed “concerns around the length of time it is stored and how it can be used.”
Geofences, Cellphone Calls and Pachinko Balls
Through a Public Records Act Request, GT has learned which ALPR manufacturers the SCPD has contacted in shopping for scanners. ELSAG is one. Based in North Carolina, the company is owned by Finmeccanica, the eighth largest military contractor in the world with earnings of $14.4 billion in 2010 according to the Washington Post. According to Finmeccanica’s website, the ‘Mobile Plate Hunter-900R®’ captures up to 3,600 license plates per minute and comes with “geofence software” that “creates an invisible, virtual barrier around sensitive areas.”
Finmeccanica’s website says that its products include “…the C-27J Joint Cargo Aircraft … to the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force; the G-222 aircraft to the Afghanistan National Army Air Corps, and the license plate reader to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.” SCPD has also contacted another ALPR manufacturer, Vigilant Solutions, based in Livermore, Calif.
It was also learned that the SCPD already uses advanced technology for collecting data called a Universal Forensic Extraction Device (UFED). Manufactured by Cellebrite, the laptop-size device performs “physical, logical, file system and password extraction of all data (even if deleted) from the widest range of devices including legacy and feature phones, smartphones, portable GPS devices, tablets and phones manufactured with Chinese chipsets.” Cellebrite is a subsidiary of Japan’s Sun Corporation, specializing in information and Pachinko games.
SCPD records show that it has spent about $19,000 on a UFED kit, software, upgrades, etc. from March 2010 to June 2013. Predictive Policing and TipSoft, a data-sharing application, are also used locally. A Dec. 8, 2013 report in USA Today revealed that police across the United States are using NSA-style spying techniques like “tower dumps,” and “The Stingray,” a suitcase-sized device that imitates a cellphone tower.
SCPD’s Records Supervisor tells GT that local police are not engaging in those activities, explaining, “Cell phone information is obtained as evidence in specific cases, under specific circumstances. In all cases the information is seized pursuant to arrest or through a search warrant/court order. We do not passively collect cell phone, email or GPS data.”
A Flurry of Cameras
The ACLU report on license scanners warns against political repression by police: “For decades of the 20th Century, the FBI and other federal agencies illegally targeted activists in the civil rights, anti-war and labor movements. Today, law enforcement agencies are again carrying out systematic surveillance of peaceful political protestors.”
An August 2011 Associated Press report revealed that, in 2005, New York City police used surveillance cameras and informants called “mosque crawlers” to watch congregants attending a mosque in Queens. According to the report, “In some instances, police in unmarked cars outfitted with electronic license plate readers would drive down the street and record the plates of everyone parked near the mosque.”
Michael Robertson in San Diego tells GT, “It’s no different than witch hunts of the past when governments would create files on citizens.” On May 22, 2009, The BBC reported that British police used license scanners to track a political activist after he attended anti-war rallies.
Some locals tell GT they are concerned that police may use license scanners and more advanced surveillance tools for political repression or tracking people.
Wes Modes helped start the DIY Parade with friends eight years ago. “That first year, plainclothes SCPD officers infiltrated the meetings and compiled notes on the activists,” says Modes, who was singled out among thousands during the 2010 parade and charged with misdemeanor marching in an unpermitted parade.
City Councilmember Micah Posner commented, “It’s a balance between wanting to empower and trust our police department and … we need to keep an eye on them and make sure they’re not spying on activists.”
Analicia Cube, founder of Take Back Santa Cruz, was surprised she hadn’t heard about the decision to use license scanners. “We need to constantly be aware that government and police have certain tools. We have to be vigilant when we feel those tools are being abused … If you’re truly a thinker then you have to be constantly questioning authority.”
Technology, Ethics and Morality
Rev. Deborah Johnson, founder of Inner Light Ministries in Aptos, was spied on as a young activist in Southern California. “I remember the days when you could hear the wiretap,” she tells GT. Regarding license scanners, Rev. Johnson says she is “very concerned about this infringement upon our rights of privacy. Not just what’s happening with (ALPRs) but what’s happening with surveillance in our society. Our technology has outpaced our ethics and morality.”
She recalls the metaphor of cooking a frog.
“You put frogs in warm water and just keep heating the water up very slowly,” she says. “The frog keeps getting acclimated to the heat and doesn’t realize what’s happening until it’s too late. We’ve become increasingly acclimated to our liberties being eroded. We’re going to wake up one day and discover principles that were once near and dear are gone.
“We put such a premium on the concept of safety that anything goes,” she adds. “Look at the mass incarceration going on in the U.S. under the guise of ‘safety.’ And the military pre-emptive strikes by the U.S. under the guise of ‘safety.’ Who is becoming safe and who has been made unsafe?”
Santa Cruz ACLU Vice President Steve Pleich agrees. “People are so focused on safety that they’re letting freedoms disappear,” he says. He mentions a Benjamin Franklin quote that he says seems all but forgotten: “He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.”
Councilmember Posner also expresses awareness of the separation of freedom and safety, saying, “We hear more from people about safety than civil rights. In as much as those two are competing values, we hear a lot more about safety now.”
GT asked Councilmember Posner what level of trust he had that the SCPD will use license readers only for criminal investigations. “A fair amount, but not complete,” he says. “It will be clear to them that political repression isn’t the intention for using the devices. Maybe that’s something the council needs to clarify.”
Wes Modes adds, “I’m sure the SCPD are just doing their job as they see it, and that’s precisely the problem. Because they’re paid to catch bad guys, and if they don’t see any, they find some. New tools and new technologies in the hands of the police just make it easier. As with any kind of domestic spying to keep us safe, there is always mission creep.”
Martin Bernal tells GT, “I have no reason to believe that they would use it for anything other than [criminal investigations]. We have good oversight of the police department, including by city council and the Independent Police Auditor.”
Meanwhile, the Independent Police Auditor for Santa Cruz, Robert Aaronson, offers a more somber prediction. “LPRs are significant but it’s going to get much worse,” he says. “Take a look at facial recognition software. We’re getting to a stage where there isn’t going to be any hope of anonymity at all.”
Expansion of the Surveillance State vs. Real Community Connection
Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has released secret documents since June 2013 that reveal massive government spying programs. These include programs that collect email and cell phone communications of world leaders and UN delegates as well as infiltration of online gaming communities. Secret documents revealed a U.S. program that tracks cellphone data of 6 billion people worldwide.
Some citizens are following the government’s lead and installing more surveillance cameras in their businesses and homes. Take Back Santa Cruz’s website highlights their Camera Solutions Team, using “camera monitoring” to “deter crime.”
For many, the privacy deprivation is simply overwhelming. “A part of me feels like it’s a lost cause,” says Councilmember Lane. “We’ve arrived at this place [of surveillance] where there’s a kind of acceptance.”
Dave Maass of EFF comments, “Whether we’re talking about the NSA grabbing everyone’s phone meta-data or Santa Cruz police grabbing everyone’s locational data based on license plates … it’s about Big Data and governments collecting information on everybody as opposed to collecting data on people who they believe are suspects.”
GT asked Martin Bernal how he might expect to feel, knowing he and his car are being photographed covertly. “I personally don’t care,” he says. “Everybody has a camera these days.”
Councilmember Posner comments, “At the moment the city council is giving the police the message all the time that they want the police to exercise more power and have more tools and have a larger effect on relatively minor crime. In the past, like when the police spied on the DIY parade, maybe the police were out of line with the council. In this case [ALPRs] I think it’s the council that really bears the responsibility for any potential, or real lack of, regard for civil rights.”
In Santa Cruz, where will the line be drawn on police surveillance? The use of license scanners has been limited or stopped in communities, including Boston, where police suspended their program, “after a Globe investigation raised serious privacy concerns. (Dec. 14, 2013 Boston Globe.) City Councilmember Lane thinks there may be a surveillance line that locals will not cross. “When the facial recognition thing comes along, I don’t think it’s out of the question that the community will say, ‘No, we’re not going to do that,’” he says.
San Diego already experiments with facial recognition, according to the ACLU, while police across the country are developing use of iris scanners, drones, and GPS Launchers, a small projectile that can be shot and stuck upon a moving car. For many, license scanners are a bridge that can take a community one step closer to becoming a surveillance city.
Mike Katz Lacabe tells GT, “Many people use the expression, ‘I don’t have anything to hide.’ But everybody does have something to hide, even if they can’t put their finger on it. Orwell’s predictions for a surveillance state didn’t go far enough. The capabilities of the NSA and local law enforcement are tremendous in a way that can paint a very specific picture of our lives. There is no reason that they should have that information at their fingertips.”
Meanwhile, Analicia Cube believes that community building is the fundamental strategy for creating safety.
“People need to think of city council and the police department as tools in your toolbox of community,” Cube notes. “They’re not the contractor or the builder. We are the builder. My whole point with Take Back Santa Cruz is I don’t want to have armed guards. Safety is peace. It doesn’t mean taller walls and big guns. Being a community and being neighbors is not about calling the authorities. It’s about knowing that each person has different needs and knowing how they can be helped.”
Steve Pleich of the local ACLU chapter remains candid: “It’s not too late to stop license readers and local surveillance.”
Edward Snowden, in his recent Christmas video, argues that, “Privacy allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be. End mass surveillance.”
The local ACLU chapter hosts a community forum to discuss ALPRs and domestic surveillance at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 12 at the Louden Nelson Community Center.