News Local/State

Data Trackers: License Plate Scanning Technology Raises Privacy Questions

a license plate scanner on top of a police car.

A license plate scanner atop a police car. Garrett Brnger for Illinois Public Radio

It doesn’t take much time at all, fractions of a second, to be marked and mapped, recorded and reported.

The automatic license plate reader cameras don’t look like much — just a pair of strobe lights on the back of a squad car, or maybe a cartoon character, depending on whom you ask.

“We had little kids call them ‘Wall-E,’” says Springfield Police Sgt. Charles Kean, whose department has been using the technology on two squad cars since 2013. The reference is to a lovable animated robot, the titular character from a 2008 Disney film.

But the mounted cameras are a little more formidable than that. Like many technologies available to law enforcement, they offer power that police praise and civil rights advocates consider warily. ALPRs, as they’re known, can scan and record thousands of license plates every hour. Comparing the plates to lists of stolen or otherwise flagged vehicles, the systems’ software sounds an alarm when there’s a match — giving police officers a handy technological edge in traffic enforcement.

“It’s impossible to remember 25,000 plates and cars and whatnot,” Kean says. With the ALPRs, there’s no need for officers to try.

The technology’s abilities don’t stop there. A quick search of the ALPR system’s database can find the time and GPS coordinates of every instance that a plate has been scanned. That information could help officers find or clear suspects by confirming vehicle locations. With the permission of other departments using technology from the same company, Vigilant Solutions, Kean says his officers can see where else in the country a particular car has shown up.

This ability to track vehicles and stockpile data is a concern for privacy advocates, like the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois’ Adam Scwhartz. He says the power to easily obtain, store and call up such information could change the relationship between the government and the governed.

“If the government wanted to know, you know, do you go to a bar after work? Do you go to a mosque? Do you go to a criminal defense lawyer, to a psychiatrist, to a controversial movie, to a union meeting, they used to have to follow you around, which is expensive. But now, with an array of technologies they can know these things about everyone all the time,” says Schwartz, who is senior staff counsel for the ACLU of Illinois. He points out that such information could be a gold mine for less-than-ethical government officials looking to target political or personal enemies. “To avoid that kind of Orwellian scenario, it’s necessary that we build the architecture now to ensure that the government uses these tools in a narrow fashion to investigate people who they have good basis to think are actually engaged in criminal activity. [One] with judicial oversight of those decisions as opposed to the blunderbuss of just vacuuming up everything and keeping it around in case they need it later, and, you know, just running the hazard that government officials are going to use this against their political enemies,” Schwartz says.

Journalists have demonstrated that it was easy to track people once they obtained scanned license plate information through open records requests. Using data from the city of Oakland, California, news website Ars Technica was able to quickly locate a city council member’s home. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune used license plate scans to follow the mayor’s movements in his city-owned car. Soon after, a debate about regulating the plate readers kicked off in the Minnesota state legislature.

Across the United States, the technology is used “very, very widely,” says David Maass, an investigative researcher for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The foundation is a San Francisco-based nonprofit that seeks to defend civil liberties with a focus on technology.

State lawmakers are starting to take notice. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, five states enacted laws last year regulating the use of ALPRs. This year, lawmakers in at least 14 sates are weighing legislation that would regulate license plate readers. One of them is Illinois.

There are four bills up for consideration: two in the Senate and two in the House. The Senate bills were put forward by Evanston Democratic Sen. Daniel Biss and Chicago Democratic Sen. Antonio Munoz, but they could also be called the ACLU plan and the law enforcement plan.

Biss’ bill, Senate Bill 1753, is backed by the ACLU. In addition to restricting the use of ALPR technology to specific law enforcement purposes like traffic enforcement or tracking criminals, it only allows police to retain or access data for a 30-day window without a court order.

“We’re not interested in banning them,” says Biss, who calls ALPRs “useful” and “legitimate” tools. “I wouldn’t support a ban, but you know they’re powerful, and so, there needs to be some kind of regulation on what is and is not appropriate to do with them.”

The limit on records retention is the primary purpose of the bill, though. “What we don’t want is the creation of a database that goes indefinitely back,” Biss says.

But such databases already exist. Vigilant Solutions, a company that sells the technology and stores digital plate information, says on its website that its database contains both plates scanned by law enforcement and commercial sources. Vigilant’s website says the law enforcement agencies control access to the plates they have scanned. The commercial data — roughly 70 million “detections” every month — can be accessed with an annual subscription.

According to a report by the ACLU and an article published in January in the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency maintains its own database of license plate data gathered from its cameras and those of other law enforcement agencies. The Wall Street Journal reported the database is also accessed by state and local law enforcement agencies for “a variety of investigations.”

Having continued access to that sort of data for investigations is precisely why backers of a rival bill in the Senate don’t want Biss’ bill. “We tried to negotiate with Sen. Biss, and he just would not look at it from a law enforcement perspective,” says Laimutis “Limey” Nargellenas, a lobbyist for the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.

The hang-up for the chiefs association, Nargelenas says, is the 30- day limit for data retention. Nargelenas says officers don’t always know what’s relevant to a crime until after that window has passed. If police find a body more than 30 days after a murder, he says, they’d be out of luck for using license plate data to aid the investigation.

“Let’s say you find a body located some place, and the body has been there for like 45 or 60 days. Now we’re going to want to go back — if we have the technology that was used in that area on license plate readers — now we’d like to go back and do that. But if we had to get rid of that data at the end of the 30 days, then we would not have that information that could help us successfully investigate this case,” Nargelenas says.

The lobbyist says police would use the information to solve crimes, not spy on citizens. He adds that anyone who divulged information gathered by scanners would be charged with a “serious crime.” The bill the chief ’s association is backing calls for restricting the technology’s use to “legitimate law enforcement purpose.” Therefore, he says the chiefs association doesn’t believe the ACLU’s concerns about privacy are a real issue.

This isn’t the first police use of technology the General Assembly has tried to tackle, nor will it be the last. In 2013, lawmakers passed the Freedom From Drone Surveillance Act, requiring that police get a warrant to use an unmanned aircraft for evidence gathering, except for in a few exempted situations. Last year, the legislature passed the Freedom From Location Surveillance Act, which requires a warrant for most instances of tracking cell phones or other electronic devices.

Lawmakers might take up police use of body cameras this session. Supported by both law enforcement and police watchdogs as a way to get an unbiased picture of how a situation unfolded, the cameras come with their own unique issues. When would officers turn them on? Are there places or situations they wouldn’t be allowed to record? Who has access to the footage afterwards?

The future of the ALPR bills is uncertain. Both Biss and Munoz say legislation is on hold for the moment, with the former saying talks are at an impasse. Meanwhile, in the House, Rep. Michael Zalewski, a Riverside Democrat, submitted an identical bill to Munoz’s.

In Mach, Rep. Peter Breen, a Republican from Lombard, amended his bill too mirror Biss’ and had the ACLU’s backing as well. “If the decision is 30 days or forever — the retention of data on innocent civilians and their movements — the large majority of representatives are going to go with the 30-day limit,” Breen said after the committee had approved the bill. Breen’s legislation did pass in the House in April, but only after he significantly watered down the data retention limit. In the newest iteration of his plan, police would be allowed to hang on to information obtained from license plate readers for 30 months, not days.

If it does approve regulations on license plate scanners this session, the legislature wouldn’t be getting out ahead of anything. Dozens of local police departments have or have used ALPRs going back to at least 2008, Illinois State Police records show. And it’s not just restricted to law enforcement. Capitol City Towing in Springfield outfitted one of its trucks with ALPR cameras. Instead of stolen cars, though, its system is looking for cars on a repossession list.

It also wouldn’t be the first time police use of technology has moved faster than legislative efforts to regulate it. Cell phone site simulators, also known as IMSI catchers, have gained media attention across the nation as well. The devices, often referred to by the brand name Stingray, can track cell phones by mimicking a cell phone tower. Though Illinois was one of several states in 2014 to pass legislation requiring warrants for location tracking, that was six years after documents show Illinois State Police purchased such equipment, which a spokesman says is now “obsolete for the ISP’s investigative needs.”

An exception might be drones, which were not widely used by local law enforcement before the 2013 law. Body cameras are another example of a technology legislators are discussing before they become commonplace in Illinois. In that case, the ACLU worries about privacy, while law enforcement is concerned there will be too many restrictions to make buying them worthwhile.

“Police love new technology,” says Maass from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He believes law enforcement often banks on getting the technology first, so they can play with it before lawmakers can regulate it. “It’s harder for policymakers to take away tools from police than it is to give it to them,” he says.

Nargelenas says police try to stay ahead of the technology with their own policies for use. Law enforcement probably wouldn’t have brought a bill forward about ALPRs if the ACLU hadn’t, he says. “We’re always putting in place the policies and procedures on how to use this equipment. On occasion, it’s necessary to go to the legislature when you’re going to use it for enforcement purposes,” he says.

License plate readers don’t rise to that level, Nargelenas says. They’re just one tool to find evidence. The concerns that drive such legislation, he says, often aren’t about state or local law enforcement but rather the federal government. Recent high-profile instances of federal spying, such as the revelation that the National Security Agency’s surveillance program mines the phone records and emails of Americans for data, may have put citizens on higher alert about the use of surveillance technology by other levels of law enforcement. “The thing that they need to keep in mind is the federal government, if they want to, they’ll get to it anyway.”