Kenosha's ALPR Grant

The Kenosha Police Department plans to use a $49,000 state grant that the department received last year to purchase two Automatic License Plate Readers- one fixed camera and one mobile camera-to be used with enhanced recognition software.  The five year contract will be with a private entity called Vigilant Solutions which will cover both the hardware and software.  A quick search on Vigilant Solutions lead to hours of research on the company itself and brought up very concerning issues, especially for me as a journalist when it comes to accessing information for the public’s interest.

The company has taken nearly 3 billion license plate photos to date.  Each month, it captures and permanently stores about 80 million additional geo-tagged images.  Vigilant Solutions profits by selling access to this data, to law enforcement agencies and private entities across the country.  This means, your diminished privacy is their product.  They advertise this technology to law enforcement as a much-needed modern upgrade.  Vigilant has been incentivizing local police departments to focus on debt collection.  Free Vigilant technology would alert police when people with pending court fines drive by.  After they pulled the driver over, they could offer two choices: Go to jail, or pay the fine, plus a 25% “processing fee” that Vigilant largely pockets.  This same technology has specifically been used to target Black and Brown motorists who owed cities money.  Contracts with Vigilant can also allow them to act as a collection agency, sending out notices to drivers based on the data they receive from law enforcement agencies.  Some county’s contracts with Vigilant have recently been upgraded to allow the company to use its own private contractors to collect on capias warrants.  Vigilant tries to keep as much information about data sharing under wraps by forcing purchasers to sign restrictive non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements.  Sorry council members and residents, sounds like you won’t be getting answers to exactly what this contract will cover.  Where’s Ed Snowden when you need him to expose corruption?  What’s even more concerning with their contracts with government bodies is that it prohibits the agencies from talking about Vigilant with the press without the company’s permission.  Vigilant has taken a hardline approach to negative press, threatening journalists with lawsuits for asking too many questions and publishing the answers they’ve received.  It leaves to question if those parts of the contracts are consistent with transparency and freedom of information laws.  Policy makers and the public are unable to effectively evaluate the technology since the contract prohibits police from speaking honestly and openly about the program.  The model relies on debt, so there’s no incentive for criminal justice leaders to work with the community to reduce the number of capias warrants, since that could result in losing the equipment.

Local communities often turn to license plate readers thinking that they will protect their community from crime.  Community members believe they need increased surveillance in order to be safe which is most often based on an irrational “fear of crime”.  Police could now receive alerts about a car’s movements in real time and review past movements at the touch of a button.  ALPRs could prove valuable in police investigations and for non-law enforcement uses like helping government agencies reduce traffic and curb environmental pollution.  The readers, which can be mounted on stationary poles, moving police cruisers, and even handheld devices, log the time and date of each scan, the vehicle’s GPS coordinates, and pictures of the car.  Some versions can also snap pictures of a vehicles occupants and create unique vehicle IDs.  The devices send the data to ALPR software, which can compare each plate against a designated “hot list”.  Such lists can include stolen cars (KPDs alleged purpose) and cars associated with AMBER Alerts for abducted children.  They can also reference vehicles that are listed in local and federal databases for reasons that may include unpaid parking tickets or inclusion in gang databases.  These queries happen automatically, though officers can also query plates manually. 

Sounds amazing!!!!

The truth is, these cameras-which record every license plate coming and going may create more problems than they solve.  There is no “real evidence” that ALPRs reduce crime.  The reality is that the total number of “hot list” license plates detected per the total number of scans is miniscule in past examinations- often less than 1%.  On average, the hit rate was 0.5%.  Law enforcement agencies across the country and Vigilant Solutions will fill communities with rhetoric on the assumption that surveillance will reduce crime by either making would-be criminals aware of the surveillance in hopes it will be a deterrent, or by using the technology to secure convictions of people that have allegedly committed crimes.

With the Black Lives Matter demonstrations taking place across the United States, law enforcement agencies are deploying their expansive surveillance arsenals to monitor protestors.  For many agencies, those surveillance tools include ALPRs, which have heightened relevance in localities where people must drive to protests, or if protests themselves are occurring by car.  Don’t even get me started on the facial recognition that ALPRs are capable of.

ALPRs have flaws and these flaws can endanger people’s lives and physical safety.  ALPRs can erroneously conclude that a passing car’s license plate matches the plate of a car on a “hot list” of stolen cars.  This can lead police to stop the car and detain motorists.  These encounters can turn violent and even deadly, especially if those cars misidentified are being driven by Black or Brown motorists. 

A notable case happened in 2009, Green v. City & County of San Francisco, when San Francisco police pulled over Denise Green, a Black city worker driving her own car.  At gunpoint, they handcuffed her, forced her to her knees, and then searched both her and her car, because an ALPR misread her plate and identified her car as stolen.  It read a “3” as a “7”.  Officers never visually verified Green’s plate number, despite their policy that required it, even after the officer called it in and dispatch matched the plate to a vehicle that looked nothing like Green’s.  The second officer who later pulled Green over also failed to verify the plate, even though he had ample opportunity to do so while stopped immediately behind Green’s car at a red light.  Despite the lack of verification, the officer called for backup and initiated a “high-risk” or “Felony” traffic stop.  Four officers pointed their guns at Green and she was ordered from her car and forced to spend 10 minutes handcuffed on her knees.  Her, and her car were searched.  Green had no criminal record.  It still took another 10 minutes for the officers to realize they made a mistake.  Green sued the city and the officers, claiming they violated her Fourth Amendment right to unreasonable search and seizure.  The district court judge granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, finding it was reasonable for the officer that pulled Green over to assume the first officer had confirmed the ALPR hit further holding it was a reasonable good faith “mistake” on the part of both officers.  The Appellate Court disagreed, ruling a jury could find that a police officer’s unverified reliance on an ALPR hit is an insufficient basis for a traffic stop and that the subsequent search and seizure of Green could violate the Fourth Amendment.  The appeals court also noted that an unconfirmed ALPR hit could not provide a legal basis to pull Green over.

In Aurora, Colorado, police claimed the license plate of a families minivan matched the license plate of a motorcycle from Montana that had been reported stolen.  A motorcycle license plate and they pulled over a minivan?? Great police work.  The minivan driven by an adult (mother) also had a 6, 12, 14, and 17 year old in it who were made to lay face down on the ground and some of them were handcuffed.  This is the same police department who killed 23 year old Elijah McClain because someone reported he looked sketchy.

I know, I know, you’re tired of hearing about the injustices to Black and Brown people because our country isn’t riddled with racism.  I guess the amount of police brutality, corruption and storming of capitals with Confederate Flags wasn’t enough to prove racism is alive and kicking.  I don’t want to hurt our cities white fragility so what I’ll do is use what’s left of my white privilege and make this a white problem so you really understand the dangers and don’t overlook it because I spoke about the dangers of protestors who are people of color.

Everyone that drives past a camera will lead to innocent people becoming suspects because they happened to drive through a specific camera zone.  The information captured by the readers, including the license plate number, date, time and location of every scan- is being collected and sometimes pooled into regional sharing systems.  Enormous databases of innocent motorists’ location information are growing rapidly.  This information is often retained for years or even indefinitely, with few or no restrictions to protect privacy rights.  In 2012 the ACLU sent public records requests to almost 600 local and state police departments, as well as other state and federal agencies, to obtain information on how these agencies use license plate readers.  They received 26,000 pages of documents detailing the use of the technology around the country.  License plate readers can serve a legitimate law enforcement purpose when they alert police to the location of a car associated with a criminal investigation.  But, again, such instances account for a tiny fraction of license plate scans, and too many police departments are storing millions of records about innocent drivers.  ALPRs have the potential to create permanent records of virtually everywhere any of us has driven, radically transforming the consequences of leaving home to pursue private life, and opening up many opportunities for abuse.  With these records, leaves to question open records requests.  In California investigative reporters at NBC were able to obtain more than 5 million photos in a three month period from a single records request.  In 2011 the Rhinebeck Police Department reported reading 164,043 plates between April and June, only eight of which were license plates of interest- a 99.99% failure rate.  In a study done in New York, the city of Beacon Police Department turned over records of its license plate reads.  In the analysis the study reviewed one week’s worth of license plate reads for one car.  The license plate reader captured the car’s location 24 times in one week, and they were able to use Google Maps to illustrate the times this car was on Beacon’s Main Street.  Even this small piece of information paints a detailed portrait of the car owner’s comings and goings, including the nights that the driver parked the car on Main Street and likely spent the night nearby.  This one example shows the potential to collect embarrassing information, even though the driver did nothing wrong.  The license plate did not trigger any alerts from the system.

The tracking of people’s location constitutes a significant invasion of privacy, which can reveal many things about their lives, such as what friends, doctors, protests, political events, or churches a person may visit.  The mere fact that your car passes a stop sign at a particular time of day may not seem like invasive information.  But you can actually tell a lot of personal information about a person by learning their daily routines- and when they deviate from those routines.  ALPR cameras give law enforcement the ability to learn the comings and goings of every car, effectively making it impossible for drivers to protect their privacy.  Not convinced yet?  ALPRs could read and collect the license plate numbers of vehicles parked at addiction counseling meetings, doctor’s offices, health clinics, or even staging areas for political protests, and therefore can have a chilling effect on social and political activities.  Some of the technology installed in ALPR systems can automatically flag cars that look a certain way- from rusted vehicles to cars with dents or poor paint jobs.  These “vehicle fingerprints” might flag, not just a particular plate but a Green Toyota Corolla with damage on the passenger side door and a Michigan license plate from Detroit.  Some ALPRs are even designed to search for certain bumper stickers, which could reveal information on the political or social views of the driver.  This leaves a serious margin for more crime when we take into consideration domestic related cases, stalking, and the current doxxing that is going on throughout the country.

Some cameras are connected to the internet, and are easily identifiable.  Worse, some are leaking sensitive data about vehicles and their drivers- and many have weak security protections that make them easily accessible.  In 2015 The Electronics Frontier Foundation found dozens of exposed devises not long after Boston’s entire ALPR network was found exposed due to a server security lapse.  In 2014 a security researcher found police ALPR cameras on a search engine for exposed databases and devises. 

While law enforcement is legally bound by privacy rules like the Fourth Amendment, legal and policy developments have failed to adequately address the risks posed by this highly invasive technology.  False positives attributes to tech-based identification systems pose a risk for democratic societies because they turn innocent people into suspects, requiring them to prove their innocence rather than requiring law enforcement to prove their guilt.  This completely upends our system of justice.  In the United States, there is a presumption of innocence and a Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.  This must mean- at a minimum- that law enforcement officers need a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity before they can stop you.  Law enforcement is already secretive, so this allows them to double down on opacity.

All of these features taken together increase the potential for abuse far beyond the dangers of collecting license plate numbers alone. Clear regulations must be put in place to keep the government from tacking our movement on a massive scale.

Looks like Kenosha has a grant to block