The San Jose city council has approved a plan to study the use of license plate readers on garbage trucks. Supporters of the proposal say that adding the technology to garbage trucks will help law enforcement monitor stolen vehicles and warrants.
The study will look at feasibility and weigh civil and privacy rights concerns. The plan already has the support of local law enforcement.
The approval comes as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and ACLU are fighting in the California Supreme Court to bring more transparency to the license plate data already collected by Los Angeles police. LAPD has automatic license plate readers mounted on patrol cars. According to the complaint from the EFF and ACLU, the police collect the movements of some 3 million people a week, and only a small fraction are facing any criminal charge. As it stands now, the data is not public and is considered part of police investigation work.
Both organizations argue that license plate reader data can create a full profile of an individual’s movements including who their doctors are, what religious organizations they are affiliated with, or what stores they go to, even though that individual may not be accused of anything.
Without clear rules of the road for how data is handled, or what is being kept, this essentially amounts to a creeping police state that has a much more detailed picture of the populace than you get from phone metadata or other forms of surveillance, especially when coupled with the sophisticated crime analytics platforms being peddled to law enforcement across the country by big data vendors.
The vast majority of police departments now use plate readers, and there are few statues governing their use. Some states like Louisiana have made moves to allow the use of plate readers statewide by law, but others are adopting rules against their use. Plate readers are also used by private companies and federal authorities.
In the San Jose case, supporters note that the police department is understaffed, and the technology provides a low-cost solution to improve law enforcement coverage of the city. The single dissenting City Council Member Chappie Jones said that cost concerns shouldn’t allow for an Orwellian “1984” style system.