LAPD says every car in Los Angeles is part of an ongoing criminal investigation

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is trying to figure out what the LAPD is doing with the mountains (and mountains) of license-plate data that they're harvesting in the city's streets without a warrant or judicial oversight. As part of the process, they've asked the LAPD for a week's worth of the data they're collecting, and in their reply brief, the LAPD argues that it can't turn over any license-plate data because all the license-plates they collect are part of an "ongoing investigation," because every car in Los Angeles is part of an ongoing criminal investigation, because some day, someone driving that car may commit a crime.

As EFF's Jennifer Lynch says, "This argument is completely counter to our criminal justice system, in which we assume law enforcement will not conduct an investigation unless there are some indicia of criminal activity."

This reminds me of the NSA's argument that they're collecting "pieces of a puzzle" and Will Potter's rebuttal: "The reality is that the NSA isn't working with a mosaic or a puzzle. What the NSA is really advocating is the collection of millions of pieces from different, undefined puzzles in the hopes that sometime, someday, the government will be working on a puzzle and one of those pieces will fit." The same thing could be said of the LAPD.

In another interesting turn in the case, both agencies fully acknowledged the privacy issues implicated by the collection of license plate data.

LAPD stated in its brief:

"[T]he privacy implications of disclosure [of license plate data] are substantial. Members of the public would be justifiably concerned about LAPD releasing information regarding the specific locations of their vehicles on specific dates and times. . . . LAPD is not only asserting vehicle owners' privacy interests. It is recognizing that those interests are grounded in federal and state law, particularly the California Constitution. Maintaining the confidentiality of ALPR data is critical . . . in relation to protecting individual citizens' privacy interests"

The sheriff's department recognized that ALPR data tracked "individuals' movement over time" and that, with only a license plate number, someone could learn "personal identifying information" about the vehicle owner (such as the owner's home address) by looking up the license plate number in a database with "reverse lookup capabilities such as LexisNexis and Westlaw."

The agencies use the fact that ALPR data collection impacts privacy to argue that—although they should still be allowed to collect this information and store it for years—they should not have to disclose any of it to the public. However, the fact that the technology can be so privacy invasive suggests that we need more information on where and how it is being collected, not less. This sales video from Vigilant Solutions shows just how much the government can learn about where you've been and how many times you've been there when Vigilant runs their analytics tools on historical ALPR data. We can only understand how LA police are really using their ALPR systems through access to the narrow slice of the data we've requested in this case.

Los Angeles Cops Argue All Cars in L.A. Are Under Investigation [Jennifer Lynch, EFF]

(via /.)

Notable Replies

  1. “No one is innocent, citizen. We are merely here to determine the level of your guilt.”
    -- Judge Dredd.

  2. Excellent, but that scanner doesn't have to save every plate it sees in order to compare a plate to a list of known stolen vehicles. It can crunch that data on board, and then forget what it saw (the innocent people).

    Technology -can- actually be used to solve crimes, without committing more crimes like this example of warrentless mass surveillance.

  3. As long as there is any unsolved crime in America, all citizens are suspects. All you need to do is to get one judge to sign a warrant for Everyone, for all time, and be done with it.

  4. Shuck says:

    So what they're saying is, "Revealing how we've violated everyone's privacy would be a violation of their privacy"? I can see a small flaw in their argument...

  5. Come to think of it, this draft press release that fell through a time warp from several years in the future may have some bearing:

    We at the Los Angeles Police Department have long considered every vehicle on Los Angeles's roads to be "part of an ongoing criminal investigation." But, after due consideration, we have determined that this is not enough.

    Therefore, at our request, a circuit court judge has today issued a warrant for arrest as a material witness for all 5,387,291 citizens of the city of Los Angeles.

    Due to space constraints at the city jail, most of those affected will be taken to special material witness detainment camps outside the city, specially built for this purpose. Expedited bail proceedings will be available for those persons whose quick release is deemed vital to the functioning of the government or economy of Los Angeles or neighboring municipalities. Other persons may be held without bail.

    Please turn to local media for the location of your neighborhood collection point, and then report there as soon as possible.  SWAT teams are presently preparing to collect any stragglers. 

    While this course of action may seem "extreme," or "literally impossible in a democratic society," or even "illegal," we would like to remind all concerned citizens that this operation is based on well-established legal precedent. If we can consider every vehicle in Los Angeles to be part of an ongoing criminal investigation, how then can we be constrained from considering every person in Los Angeles to be part of an ongoing criminal investigation? And, given the near-certain flight risk, it would therefore be irresponsible not to issue material witness warrants!

    While some malcontents may seek to interfere with the course of justice, we expect most Angelinos to help us make the city a better place. Or else.

    (Oh, sorry, not "press release from the future," but "satire on flawed legal reasoning." I always get those two mixed up. But my point stands!)

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