Council Recap: Chacon Still Can’t Seal the Deal for License Plate Readers

City Council decided Thursday night (Sept. 1) to, once again, postpone a vote on allowing the Austin Police Department to reinstate use of its Automated License Plate Reader program.

The department already owns 20 ALPR cameras and previously contracted with Vigilant Solutions to manage the software side – primarily the database of license plate images captured by ALPR cameras, which officers query if they suspect a vehicle is connected to a criminal investigation. APD describes the technology as a “force multiplier” to help expedite criminal investigations amid its staffing shortage, but privacy advocates describe the program as enabling mass state surveillance. The latter position won the day in 2020, as the Vigilant contract was expiring and justice advocates were looking for places to reduce the APD budget. (The dollars, but not the actual programs, were restored to APD the following year after adoption of a state law punishing municipalities for “defunding” their police.)

A coalition of justice and privacy advocates have pressured Council to vote against reinstating the program. One concern is the harm that could befall someone erroneously linked to a crime due to misuse of the technology, regardless of intent. Cases of ALPR misuse have been reported in cities around the world, including near Oakland, CA, where Contra Costa County Sheriff’s deputies pulled over a motorist at gunpoint after the vehicle was flagged as stolen in an ALPR database. It had been stolen, but then returned to the rental company that owned it, which failed to update police and the ALPR database.

In May 2020, an Austin motorist had a similar experience. According to a complaint filed with the Office of Police Oversight, APD officers pulled over a woman after their license plate readers indicated the car was stolen. The officers asked the driver to walk backward toward them; when she was allowed to turn around, they had their guns drawn. The complainant “states that she was terrified and didn’t know what she had done,” the OPO complaint reads. She was then handcuffed.

The complainant didn’t know what she had done, because she hadn’t done anything. The license plate number was actually a mismatch due to incorrect data entry, so she was pulled over, at gunpoint, due to a clerical error. Her frustration in the OPO complaint was with the response: “She doesn’t think it’s appropriate to put guns on people who are cooperating, and that if a minor clerical error puts citizens at risk of being shot by police officers, that’s problematic,” the complaint reads. The officers involved in the incident were not disciplined for their conduct.

Beyond cases where ALPR mistakes may put lives at risk, advocates point to the sweeping location tracking that ALPR cameras enable on any person as they drive through the city. From both stationary cameras mounted above the street and mobile units on police patrol vehicles, the ALPRs surveil indiscriminately, capturing every license plate that comes into view and adding them to the database that is matched against “hot lists” of vehicles known to be involved in criminal conduct.

That database will be accessible to APD and, by request, to any of the dozens of other law enforcers that partner in data sharing with APD through its notorious Austin Regional Intelligence Center. It’s part of a network of state/federal “fusion centers” across the country that was hacked three years ago in a celebrated bit of activist espionage called Blueleaks, illustrating the risk such big, juicy datasets will face as long as they’re maintained on APD servers. Millions of drivers in the United Kingdom two years ago saw their travel data captured by license plate readers and then leaked by hackers.

The risk decreases if the license plate image data isn’t retained for very long, which is an issue under debate in Austin. The resolution by Council Member Mackenzie Kelly specifies a retention period of 30 days, which APD Chief Joseph Chacon also supports; he told Council that, despite the cybersecurity and other risks, the value of ALPRs as an investigation tool increases with the length of the retention period. “The more data we have access to and the farther back in time that it goes,” Chacon told Council, “the more likely we are to be successful in solving numerous crimes. It’s crucial that APD has access to [ALPR scans] for the greatest amount of time that Council feels comfortable with allowing us to retain that data.” On the other hand, CM José “Chito” Vela, a criminal defense and immigration lawyer by trade, has proposed an amendment reducing the retention period to three minutes – just long enough to run against the hot lists APD has to look for matches, and then deleted.

As Chacon pointed out, hundreds of ALPRs, many of them privately owned, are already in use by businesses, neighborhood associations, or other law enforcement agencies in Central Texas. All of that data can be shared among law enforcement now; advocates wanted to know more about who could and could not access the APD data.

Chacon said that policy could be written into the contract with the vendor who succeeds Vigilant as the ALPR data/software provider. That APD policy, he suggested, could mandate that only certain personnel have access to the ALPR records and it could require outside agencies – or even ARIC – to request the data before it is shared. Data sharing would not be automated. APD has already said it would not use ALPRs to collect on traffic fines or conduct “warrant roundups.” The technology would likely be used to recover stolen vehicles, though Chacon said it could also be useful in some narcotics investigations.

Even that limited access to the data is concerning for advocates, as Alicia Torres with Grassroots Leadership explained. When Grassroots learned that ARIC was sharing data with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, it asked APD what information ICE provided to show the “terrorism or criminal nexus” that’s required to justify the request. “The biggest issue for us is that there’s so little oversight of ICE and APD has willingly handed over information to them,” Torres said. “If ICE knows someone they’re looking for is in Austin, they can just say they’re pursuing re-entry charges and under Senate BIll 4 [which requires local law enforcement cooperate with ICE investigations], APD would have to comply.”

Advocates also worry about how the Texas Legislature could weaponize surveillance technologies like ALPRs in the future. Under current law, APD can but is not required to share ALPR data, automatically or via request, with other law enforcement agencies. But state legislators could pass a new law prohibiting cities from restricting access to such information.

As David Johnson, also with Grassroots Leadership, told Council, a tool APD doesn’t have is one the state cannot compel it to use in ways the community doesn’t want. “ “It is easier to prevent something from being built then remove it once it’s part of the carceral infrastructure,” Johnson said.

Council agreed to postpone the ALRP vote; it is likely to return to the dais at Council’s Sept. 15 meeting.

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