Forum Tonight Details Rise in "Police Surveillance" of the Public

Increase in security technology draws concerns from both ends of the political spectrum

Published : Tuesday, February 13, 2018 | 6:36 AM

"Police Surveillance" of the Public

[Updated] The rise of technology which has driven smartphones and the apps that supercharge them, drones, and “AI” has also powered the increasingly Minority Report-like capabilities of governments and law enforcement agencies to achieve a profound level of data collection.

“Police departments across the nation are deploying ever more sophisticated technologies to track the activities of the citizens they are charged with protecting,” said Mohammed Tasjar, a Staff Attorney at the ACLU of Southern California. “Some tools can capture information from your cellphone when you attend a rally, or even in your home. Others can monitor your social media activity or record your license plate or film you walking down the street. You probably won’t know any of that is happening — or where the information is going.”

The Pasadena/Foothills Chapter of the ACLU Southern California will present “Police Surveillance: Who Knows What About You? What Can You Do About It?,” a public discussion on the rise in “police surveillance” of citizens, Tuesday at 7 p.m., at Friends House in Pasadena.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the use of these new technologies by local law enforcement, Tajsar said, is that they are often deployed without communities knowing about them, and without any kind of public oversight or serious discussion.

The actual technologies and programs can be quite invasive, and the data collected can be shared upstream by the collecting agency with county, state and federal agencies.

The forum tonight is “an attempt to talk about some of these developments with the specific focus on what’s going on in the city of Pasadena, but also thinking about them in a broader context.”

Kris Ockershauser, Chair of the ACLU Pasadena/ Foothills Police Practices Committee, concurred, saying, “We’re trying to bring [surveillance technology] to light so that we’ll have a say. We definitely want the City Council to make the final decision, not the police department, as has been happening here before and all through the United States.”

One bone of contention is the so-called ALPR, or Automated License Plate Reader technology, which can read and collect ownership and registration information on all vehicles, moving or parked, in a 360-degree circle around a police vehicle as it moves through the city.

ALPR systems photograph the license plates, reads them and matches them with vehicle registration data — the legal ownership of the car, its registration status — then stamps the record with the location where it was photographed and direction of travel, along with the exact time the information was gathered.

For Pasadena police, the system is a boon. If the ALPR reader “sees” a stolen car or a vehicle connected with a crime or suspect, it instantly announces the car’s presence and identifies the car to the officers in the police vehicle.

The system works. Over the years, although not all their vehicles carry the system, Pasadena police have repeatedly recovered stolen cars and arrested numerous suspects because of their ALPR system.

Many civil rights activists say the activity amounts to “police surveillance” and want to know why the information is saved and what becomes of the information once it is obtained.

Laurie Levenson, professor of law at Loyola Law School, said that because ALPRs are used out on public streets, they don’t violate anybody’s right to privacy.

“The Fourth Amendment doesn’t protect people against things that everyone can see in public,” Levenson explained. “You don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy, and it’s not a Fourth Amendment violation.”

“The real question,” she continued, “is what they’re going to do with it. Ordinarily, we expect law enforcement to be protecting us against crimes, and then trying to solve crimes. We worry if the government just starts collecting a lot of information on everybody and what they’ll be using it for. That’s a separate issue. That can be addressed by legislators or people who run the department, saying how they’re going to use the information. So even if the Fourth Amendment allows them to collect it, I’m not sure it’s a great idea for them to do so, or be able to use it for any purpose.”

The ACLU’s Tasjar also believes that an organized opposition to “surveillance” technology can make an impact on government when the technology becomes a budget line item for cities.

Tasjar cited a recent example in the Northern California city of Alameda, which last week that discussed the acquisition of an automatic license plate reader system sold by a company called Vigilant.

“But,” said Tasjar, “after large community organizing efforts in opposition to the acquisition of the system, the City of Alameda basically declined to stay in contact with this company and they’re back to the drawing board.”

As Tasjar explained further, companies like Vigilant can raise community hackles because, he claims, “the company actually collects the hits on automatic license plate readers and then makes the information that is collected, searchable and available to departments across the country, as well as with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).”

Dani Bennett, a spokesperson for ICE in Washington, D.C., confirmed to Pasadena Now on Monday that “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has issued an award of a single source, firm-fixed price contract to obtain query-based access to a commercially available license plate reader database.”

In other words, ICE has purchased information from a license plate reader database company. That company is believed to be West Publishing (TRSS), which has partnered with Vigilant to provide the service.

Bennett continued, “Like most other law enforcement agencies, ICE uses information obtained from license plate readers as one tool in support of its investigations. ICE conducts both criminal investigations and civil immigration enforcement investigations.”

“ICE is not seeking to build a license plate reader database,” Bennett said, “and will not collect nor contribute any data to a national public or private database through this contract.”

Bennett also explained that in 2015, ICE completed a privacy impact assessment which was “used to create a framework for use of the technology.”

“The privacy impact assessment was updated prior to ICE’s use of any license plate reader database,” Bennett said, “to reflect how the contract meets the established privacy requirements. The contract must comply with established privacy requirements outlined in the privacy impact assessment. These are the most stringent requirements known to have been applied for the use of this technology.”

ICE also issued a similar solicitation in 2014 that was cancelled over privacy concerns about the use of the technology.

According to ICE officials, the privacy requirements include the use of a logon splash screen that describes the agency’s permissible uses of the system and data; with a requirement for users to consent to these rules before proceeding; an auditing requirement for users to input a license plate number, a reason code, and identification number for the law enforcement case the query is associated with, before making a query.

There are also limitations on the timeframe of the data that can be queried, guaranteed accuracy of data; and assurance that ICE queries will not be provided to other system users or used for commercial purposes, according to ICE.

But even a staunch conservative like Mike Alexander, president of the Pasadena-based TEAPAC, thinks the rise in these types of security technologies has crossed the line.

“One of our core concepts in civil liberties is our basic right to privacy, and the idea that the government ought not to investigate you without probable cause,” Alexander said. “In the modern era, modern technology, to say nothing of the emerging and very coherent foreign threats, has put privacy under increasing pressure. And the deployment of such technologies as facial recognition, and license plate recognition, has transformed much of American society into the surveillance state.”

Remarkably, in this contentious political atmosphere, many activists on both the left and the right find themselves in agreement in opposing this type of data collection.

Progressive civil rights attorney Dale Gronemeier, ironically, seems to agree with Alexander on this specific issue.

“It’s not so much the technology that anyone’s really upset about to catch bad guys and to surveil bad guys, but the bigger issue is that they start using this technology to surveil everyone, and they don’t let everyone know about it,” Gronemeier said. “There’s no public discussion, there’s no agreement with the constituency about this, it just happens, it just sprung on us. These are some of the big issues here.”

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