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Big Brother: LA police sued over massive data collection gleaned from cameras

  • ALPR.jpg

    Automatic license plate readers like the one seen here are mounted atop a police cruiser and utilize both an infrared and a color camera. (Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department)

  • ALPR2.jpg

    Automatic license plate readers can also be placed on fixed locations, like this light post in Compton, Calif. (Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department)

Show us the data.

That’s the message behind a joint lawsuit seeking to force the Los Angeles law enforcement authorities to release a massive trove of information collected by ubiquitous cameras that read license plates and can thus track the movements of millions of motorists not suspected of any crime. The cameras, called automatic license plate readers (ALPRs), are on fixed locations, including stop lights, street signs and in squad cars. Each camera can record as many as 1,800 plates per minute, and more than 160 million "data points" have been collected in Los Angeles County, according to one report. Critics say that gives authorities a huge database on the comings and goings of ordinary citizens.  

"By matching your car to a particular time, date and location — and building a database of that information over time — law enforcement can learn where you work and live, what doctor you go to, which religious services you attend, and who your friends are," said Electronic Frontier Foundation Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch, whose group has joined with the American Civil Liberties Union in filing suit. "The public needs access to data the police actually have collected to be able to make informed decisions about how ALPR systems can and can't be used."

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, asks a judge to order the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to release records from the week of Aug. 12, 2012. While both agencies did provide some materials following requests filed under the California Public Records Act, they failed to disclose documents related to sharing information with other agencies, the lawsuit alleges.

"By matching your car to a particular time, date and location ... law enforcement can learn where you work and live, what doctor you go to, which religious services you attend, and who your friends are."

- Jennifer Lynch, EFF staff attorney

Automatic license plate readers can be easily mounted on fixed locations like stoplights or directly onto a patrol vehicle. Those mounted on squad cars must be activated by a police officer, but ALPR's at fixed locations are constantly scanning plates and recording the dates and times that specific vehicles are at specific locations

The ALPR system used by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officers, for example, uses “hot lists” comprised of “user defined data that is manually input into the informational data file so that ALPR users will be alerted whenever a ‘vehicle of interest’ is located,” according to an internal directive cited in the lawsuit.

The directive, according to the lawsuit, noted that current use of “hot lists” include AMBER alerts and vehicle associated with 290 sex registrants.

“The document notes, ‘Often times, these hotlists will identify a ‘vehicle of interest’ which is not necessarily wanted for a crime (ex: sex registrants vehicle),” the lawsuit continues. “Personnel must use discretion and in some cases have independent information justifying a traffic stop.”

In October, ACLU officials sent a second request to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to learn additional details about the “hot list” system — which falls within the definition of public records under the California Public Records Act (CRPA) — but authorities declined to provide them, the lawsuit alleges.

“These records do not fall under any exemption to the CRPA, and, even if portions of them do, they could be produced in redacted form,” the lawsuit reads.

On average, according to a June 2012 report in LA Weekly, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles Police Department conduct approximately 22 scans for every one of the 7 million vehicles registered in Los Angeles County. More than 160 million data points have reportedly been logged by both agencies as of June.

"Police can and should treat location information from ALPRs like other sensitive information,” ACLU-SC Senior Staff Attorney Peter Bibring said in a statement. “They should retain it no longer than necessary to determine if it might be relevant to a crime and get a warrant if they need to keep it any longer. They should limit who can access it, who they can share it with and create an oversight system to make sure the limits are followed.”

LAPD spokesman Officer Cleon Joseph declined to comment on the pending litigation when contacted by FoxNews.com.

Meanwhile, Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, told FoxNews.com he believes the department is on “solid footing” in regards to withholding the records requests due to exemptions pertaining to government and security files.

“But we’re more than willing to have a judge decide this matter,” Whitmore said Thursday. “The irony is we share the concern of privacy. Do we want to release files on people who have done nothing wrong?”

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