Greater transparency needed for Plainfield’s automated scanners

Last weekend, I wrote about the uptick in traffic stops for speeding violations in Plainfield. In speaking to Police Director Carl Riley, Plainfield View learned that these actions are a response to citizens’ complaints about speeding. We also learned that controversial automated license plate readers are used to better enforce the law.

Automated license plate readers are controversial because license plate data is stored, lending itself to abuse and unnecessary hyper-surveillance. The ACLU even prepared a solid report on the matter.

Only two months ago, the City of Boston decided to suspend its license plate scanning program when the news website MuckRock as well as the Boston Globe began to pry into the program. MuckRock found that the sensitive license plate information wasn’t adequately protected, amongst other discoveries.

The Boston Globe, hardly a bastion for progressive thought, described Massachussett’s programs as follows:

“More than 60 law enforcement agencies across Massachusetts use automated license plate recognition technology, including every police department in the Boston area. The scanners use high-speed cameras to compare plates against police databases, including vehicles associated with outstanding warrants, lapsed registration, expired insurance, or unpaid parking tickets.

The readers also record the date, time, and GPS location of each vehicle, even in heavy traffic. The technology thus offers a wealth of information for surveillance as well as investigations: with enough scans over time, police can trace a particular vehicle’s path and discern driving habits.” (see full article here)

This sounds similar to Plainfield’s cameras, which Police Director Riley described to Plainfield View as being “mounted in police vehicles and observing both parked and moving vehicles.”

In general, nationally, only around 0.2% of scans are hits of any sort. Why, though, is everyone’s information stored? Many municipalities are now begging the same question, and we should, too. Your habits and whereabouts are indeed personal information and very easy to abuse if not protected and, dare I say, purged at some point.

The good news for most municipalities is that this data must be erased within a certain amount of time, sometimes as little as 48 hours. The bad news is that the State of New Jersey approves data storage for as long as five years. The worst news of all is that in Plainfield we don’t even know how long our information is stored, what exactly is stored, and who has access to it – or any other details.

When asked what the local policy is concerning storage of license plate data, Carl Riley stated that “because the police division uses the data for various reasons, I do not wish to comment in the media about that at this time.”

If such vague information is a secret, the whole program is in effect covert. We are given parameters to the program. No information regarding duration of storage.  No assurances that information is well protected. No idea how many scans are done and how many scanners the city has. We know very little.

All we know, aside from that contracted local tow truck companies are big winners from night scans of vehicles, is that the state mandates data erasure after five years. However, this information didn’t come from Mr. Riley. It came from this letter by State of New Jersey Attorney General Paula Dow. Furthermore, the language from the state is ambiguous. It isn’t clear whether they only mandate purging of data after five years, as many media sources imply, or require data to be stored for five years as well as erased thereafter. As an aside – New Hampshire bans these readers and Maine requires that information on innocent drivers be deleted within 21 days. Despite Minnesota have no state law, the state police opt to erase data within 48 hours, St. Paul releases it in 14 days, and Minneapolis keeps it for a full year.

The nearby Edison Police Department eventually provided the ACLU with this 16 page report, showing that they are indeed able to erase data, but only after the data has been transferred to the State Police Regional Operations Intelligence Center or any other system that stores data. The ACLU has created a page detailing its interactions with dozens of New Jersey police departments concerning information of its license plate programs.

Another problem with a secret program, like ours in Plainfield, is how the enforcement is done. A great concern in Boston was the police department’s strong tendency to survey poorer and working class neighborhoods, further exacerbating disparities. Where are these automated reader efforts directed towards in our city?

Clearly, the public doesn’t need to know the specifics of anyone’s license plate information or the details of any ongoing investigations, but we do deserve to know how the program is administered. The only thing worse than dragnet surveillance of overwhelmingly innocent people is secret dragnet surveillance of overwhelmingly innocent people with unknown parameters and no information about purging of the data.

Concerning technology, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey addressed privacy issues at the 2013 International Association of Chiefs of Police. “License plate readers are in use now. They could be the predecessor of facial recognition equipment in patrol cars. Imagine instead of driving down the street scanning license tags, driving down the street checking the faces of individuals walking down the street.” He concluded, “We have to remind ourselves, just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do it.” Indeed.

I look forward to more transparency in the future so that Plainfield residents can understand and have their voices heard on where this line is drawn and on our own privacy.

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