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American Civil Liberties Union Santa Cruz County: License Plate Readers? Not Here!
Privacy Protection is First Priority
Santa Cruz is a few pen strokes away from installing Automated License Plate Readers in city police cruisers. While the Santa Cruz chapter of the ACLU recognizes this tracking technology has legitimate uses, the privacy concerns compel us to recommend these cameras not be deployed.
Some of our concerns have indeed been addressed. The retention of camera data by SCPD would be limited to one year in most cases, and any access of that data would be individually authorized on a case-by-case basis. Some amount of auditing already takes place between agencies to limit abuse, and we commend SCPD on passing its own recent federal review of local checks and balances with high marks. But our information is winding up in some surprising places far from Santa Cruz.
Whistleblowers have warned us of a new breed of technology-enabled threats to our privacy. Our intelligence community is siphoning massive amounts of information about its citizens into centralized databases. Countless companies have now received National Security Letters ordering the secret release of our email, chats, photos, and passwords to the NSA and other groups in our highly funded intelligence community.
The planned host of our automotive photo albums is NCRIC, the Northern California Regional Information Center, which also assures us proper procedure will be followed when accessing our data. This provides little comfort, as the original mission of this post-9/11 "fusion center" is to more effectively share data between U.S. and local law enforcement. NCRIC's policy plainly states they hold no liability for data once it has been copied to any of these "third party" organizations.
So once photos of your family car are transmitted from a patrol car or a stationary camera to NCRIC's servers, there is no real accountability. Maps of our daily lives constructed from these ALPR data points can reveal an astonishing amount of personal detail even when the data is "sanitized" or "anonymized", as researchers have repeatedly proven. Silicon Valley and Big Data continue to invent new ways to tease new insight from large databases like phone logs, website visits, and other scraps of otherwise personal (and assumedly private) information.
Citizens deserve to visit health clinics, abortion centers, political meetings, and support groups without an indefinite list of agencies registering the event in their databases for arbitrary future use. Our rights to free assembly, speech, travel and privacy are being challenged at a core level. The chilling effect of the emerging surveillance state has serious ramifications for the future of our democracy.
The Supreme Court recently ruled warrantless collection of information like photos and contact lists from cell phones is an unconstitutional violation of privacy. The court cited an earlier case where warrantless GPS tracking was curtailed in spite of law enforcement's stance that it was equivalent to tailing a suspect in a police car. Technology is often ahead of the law, but the courts are catching up, and continue to recognize the rights of U.S. citizens against intrusive, automated dragnet surveillance.
We urge SCPD and City Council to reconsider their deployment of ALPRs.