Kurt gets out of prison, and begins looking for the ex-wife who sent him there. She’s changed her address, changed her phone number, and doesn’t work in the same place anymore. Partnered with the restraining order she’s taken out against him, this would usually be enough to slow his search considerably.
That is, unless he knows her license plate number. Using a public disclosure request, the Seattle Police Department would then give Kurt her exact vehicle movements over a 90 day period – where it was and when, what direction it was going at the time (or if it was parked), and even pictures of the car itself.
This anecdote is hypothetical, but the laws it describes are not. Every day, Seattle police use small, sophisticated cameras mounted on their cars to collect enormous amounts of data on the city’s drivers. These devices, known as automatic license plate readers (ALPRs), map the location of roughly 150,000 cars a week in Seattle. In just a few months, they capture more scans in Seattle than there are cars registered in King County.
From the mayor to your co-workers, the history of any driver in Seattle is publicly accessible. Anyone can obtain a single license plate’s records, or the entire database, simply by making a public disclosure request with the Seattle Police –instructions on making one can be found online here.
Earlier this year, a request for the city’s ALPR data was answered in roughly eight weeks, yielding gigabytes of data and photographs. The data consisted of 1.7 million plate scans the Seattle Police had collected over three months, more than triple the amount of cars registered in Seattle (roughly 530,000). In one case, a single car had been scanned 81 times, capturing their daily habits with enormous specificity. Using a separate request, scans were also attained on specific license plates.
ALPRs are meant to fight crime, and can be extremely effective in that respect. Every day police cruisers have a “watch list” loaded into their computers, detailing stolen cars and those involved in criminal activity. According to SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb, when an ALPR-equipped cruiser passes a listed vehicle, they are “identified instantaneously. “
They pass the car, there’s a beep, and they’ve got them,” Whitcomb says. “For it to be efficient it has to be quick.” The cameras are also useful in cracking down on parking ticket scofflaws.
But if recognition of these vehicles is instantaneous, why is data kept for months, or indefinitely, on the 99 percent of cars not on the list? That’s the question among civil liberty and privacy advocates.
Last week the Washington State ACLU presented a draft bill to Washington legislators that would establish statewide regulations around ALPRs. Once prohibitively expensive, ALPRs are becoming common across Washington, due to decreasing costs and increased funding by federal grants, which paid for Seattle’s devices.
However, while more ALPRs are installed every year, laws aren’t keeping up with their rapid spread. Regulations on their use currently differ between cities and agencies. The Washington State Police keeps their scans for two months. Auburn keeps its data a year. Some departments could keep it indefinitely.
In Seattle, police say ALRP data is kept 90 days. However, Whitcomb said these rules only “probably” exist in writing. The state ACLU contends no such policy is formally established, and the section in SPD’s manual on ALRPs does not mention any such timeframe.
“As of 2012, we were able to obtain 3-plus years of data from the SPD when we did our public records request, meaning that they were retaining all data indefinitely,” said Jamela Debelak, technology and liberty director for the Washington State ACLU. “We heard that after our request that they were going to be purging data after 90 days, but there is no written policy and we have no other evidence that deletion is now happening regularly.”
Furthermore, the state ACLU found almost no rules on how ALPR data is shared between agencies. The lack of these policies could render local rules moot. Sharing local data to centralized databases – for example, federal data centers like the Washington Fusion Center – could mean data is stored indefinitely, regardless of local rules to the contrary.
Washington State Patrol spokesman Bob Calkins said Seattle’s ALPR data is not shared with the Washington Fusion Center, and is only shared with state police on a case-by-case basis. But Calkins could not cite any formal policies to this effect, noting it was a city-by-city issue.
Said Debelak: “There’s nothing stopping them from giving driver data to the federal Fusion Center, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they were.”
Abuse of ALPR data is not entirely hypothetical. In 1998, a Washington, D.C., police lieutenant was convicted of using ALPR data to document cars parked outside gay bars, then blackmailing the cars’ owners. States like Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire have passed laws regulating the cameras’ use, such as how long their data is kept and who can access it. In New Hampshire, ALPRs are forbidden along public roadways.
Washington has no statewide laws dictating their use, with local police departments left to set their own rules. Meanwhile, obtaining the technology is typically just a matter of city councils approving the federal grants that fund them.
As federal funding for these devices increases, privacy and civil liberty activists argue we are headed toward a future in which one could exist on every block. ALPRs can be enormously effective in fighting serious crimes such as carjackings and kidnappings, as well as smaller infractions like unpaid parking tickets. However, they could also be used to investigate otherwise law-abiding citizens. Privacy advocates argue that if your vehicle is seen at a political rally, an Islamic worship service, or other such location, you could conceivably find yourself on a list.
Should everyone be continually investigated, just in case they eventually commit a crime? Should every citizen be able to track the movements of every other? These are questions raised by the use of these devices, and ones the ACLU has begun asking in Olympia.