Thursday, October 9, 2014

Is your shopping mall spying on you?


LPR's  — which record photos of license plates  — have been installed over various entrances and exits to the Mall of America.  What is different than local law enforcement use of LPR is a partnership between a private entity and a local government agency to gather and collect location data on many thousands - if not hundred of thousands - of vehicles, which in turn are tied to people.

In August of 2012, before the LPR cameras were purchased and placed at the Mall of America, Bloomington Police collected 577, 859 LPR scans of vehicles for the month.  In May of 2014, the total number of BPD scans topped 1, 150, 719 — it more than doubled.

Through a data practices request, I received a memo of understanding (MOU) between the City of Bloomington and the Mall of America (MOA ) that allows the Bloomington Police Department to install LPR cameras - possibly as many as 16 - at the Mall to do surveillance activity.

The LPR's were purchased by the Bloomington Police Department (BPD) with grants from the US Department of Homeland Security and the State of Minnesota Department of Commerce.  The agreement highlights that the LPR's are for the "security of the Mall, to identify vehicles that pose a threat to public safety, or have a warrant issued for the vehicle’s owner."    But also used "for the identification of potential criminals."

The Mall of America has been a focal point of civil liberty and privacy concerns in the past.  In reporting done by National Public Radio and the Center for Investigative Reporting there were issues of how the Mall was handling suspicious activities reporting and "disrupting innocent people's lives."

What does the Mall of America specifically do with the data it collects?  How long do they keep it? Should Mall of America customers be given notice that their license plate is being searched, examined, and compared against a "hot list?"  It is clear the Mall of America gets "identification of vehicles entering the MOAC property."  Is this only the picture of vehicle and license plate number?  The agreement states that the Mall does not collect from BPD "data relating to the registration or ownership of these vehicles" that are scanned.  But it is easy to "buy" bulk lists of drivers license and registration as highlighted in the most recent Minnesota legislative session when the issue of access to drivers license and registration was part of major discussion.  Is the Mall of America buying this kind of data and pairing it up with the "identification of vehicle" for numerous purposes?

It is not just law enforcement taking a bite out of your privacy and liberty with the license plate readers, but the Mall of America is doing the same.

Update/Note: I spoke with Chief Potts after this post was initially published and he stated that the Mall of America is not getting any "identification of vehicles" contrary to what I was told by Bloomington Police Department previously.  Attempt was made to contact Mall of America public relations to comment on story with message left, but no return call.

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