Thursday, July 12, 2012

Minnesota cops high-tech vacuum cleaners

In my decades of interaction with law enforcement officials and street officers the one thing they continuously crave for is information.  It is a part of their need to solve crime and to get the bad people that do harm in our community.  I and many people know that law enforcement needs to get "the right information to the right person at the right time."

The challenge is how to do this with accountability and transparency, but also that it does not affect or impact on our civil liberties and privacy in a negative way.

With some aspects of Minnesota law enforcement there is an attitude "just let us do our job" and do not bog us down with rules and laws that are not necessary, "trust us."  On the other hand, there are people in law enforcement who know there is great skepticism and suspicion how law enforcement does its duties by the public.

In Minnesota law enforcement today a major realignment of police information gathering is happening.  A very heavy reliance on public and private databases.  For example, St Paul Police Department has access to the CLEAR databases and Accurint databases among others.  Hennepin County in the past has had access to Coplink and Choicepoint databases.

The issue of how law enforcement use these vast databases, public and private, and their accountability to the public is another issue we will not discuss here today.

But the new technical data gatherer (vacuum cleaner) on the law enforcement block is the Automatic License Plate Recognition(ALPR).  In Minnesota, a number of law enforcement agencies are getting these through a Minnesota Department of Commerce grant program.  Hennepin County and Washington County Sheriffs were recipients of grants to buy ALPR's  among several other agencies.  Minneapolis, St Paul, and Maplewood are among several communities that have had these tech tools for a bit.

So what's the problem?  In general:

a. It is the "vacuuming" of data of every vehicle the plate scanner eye focuses on.  Per a data practices request I just received these cameras can "scan" up to 1800 plates a minute. 

b. It is the retention of law abiding people's whereabouts from 14 days to forever in local, state, and national databases. 

c. It is the straying away for what the ALPR's mission supposedly were: to focus on stolen cars, missing persons, and AMBER alerts. Mission creep has come as per example, a Washington County Sheriffs document which states that "ALPRs may also be used to gather information related to active warrants, homeland security, electronic surveillance, suspect interdiction and stolen property recovery."

d. And lastly, the implementation of this new tool for law enforcement is being done without public discussion and the public generally not knowing how it is being used, the kind of data being collected, and on whom, and how long it is being kept for.

What is the data being collected by these new "sweeper" toys?

Depending on the vendor and product a database can store images, plate #, date, time, and gps data.  What vehicles are in use, where it has been, and where it is going are some of the inferences that can be made from the data collected.  The license plate can tell where a person could be or where the person has been based on who the plate is registered to.  The data collected by the readers can be stored, linked for other applications and uses, or compared to information in other databases.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center suggests several questions to be asked:

Does the ALPR system monitor all motor vehicles and retain license plate identification information on all citizens?

Is information collected by the ALPR system saved? Is it retained? For how what duration?

Does the system include controls over who has access to license plate information?

Are binding laws in place, rather than departmental policies, governing how such information may be used?

These suggested questions are among many that need to be answered and addressed by the Minnesota Legislature and public as Minnesota law enforcement agencies begin to get these "moppers" and keep track of where people go.

NOTE:  I also did a previous post on this subject.

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