In May 2019, we raised alarms about the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office request to scout for locations to place automated license plate readers at prominent intersections in town. Suffice to say, nothing has happened in the interim to allay our concerns about law enforcement overreach, and a recent state audit of these camera systems makes crystal clear how local agencies are misusing them.
When Sheriff’s officials made their pitch for ALPR cameras on the coast, they said being able to trace every car that came and went would help them foil kidnappings, carjackings and other serious crime. While acknowledging privacy concerns, law enforcement pointed to existing safeguards and an old saw that frankly is not good enough in 2020: Just trust us.
Half Moon Bay city officials said last year they would wait for results from a California state auditor’s report on use of the cameras before giving the go-ahead. That report is now in and it reveals that we simply can’t trust law enforcement with this data.
While these cameras are ubiquitous, used in Menlo Park, Daly City and hundreds of communities across the country, the auditor focused its attention on four California communities — Fresno and Los Angeles as well as Sacramento and Marin counties. It found deficient or nonexistent policies governing the use of the data, that no one was tracking who had access to these photos, and that local agencies were not following state law governing their use. In fact, not one of the examined jurisdictions had policies that assured legal requirements were being followed.
Why would law-abiding citizens care that law enforcement was taking their photos and matching them with unknown databases?
Consider Los Angeles. The auditor found that 13,000 LAPD employees had access to 320 million images recorded by nearly 400 cameras around the city. Less than 0.1 percent of those photos were associated with any crime. However, as the ACLU points out, these cameras could be used by a sheriff’s employee to track, say, the movements of an ex-spouse. Think it doesn’t happen? An Associated Press review found 325 law enforcement officers nationwide had been fired, suspended or resigned between 2013 and 2015 for misusing ALPR data.
And if, despite all evidence to the contrary, you trust local law enforcement with the data, the state audit found three of the four agencies it studied shared millions of images with hundreds of entities across the United States and none of them had any idea how that data might have been used. Most store the data in the cloud and you can guess what the auditor found. “The agencies lack guarantees that the cloud vendor will provide appropriate protection of their data,” the report states.
The cameras haven’t come up again since they were delayed by the City Council last year. City Manager Bob Nisbet noted, understandably, that the state audit hadn’t been top of mind. We expect one day the Sheriff’s Office will renew its pitch, promising policy protections that cradle your images in the arms of justice.
When that day comes, remember the state audit. And unplug the ALPR cameras.
— Clay Lambert