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]