Council summary: Chacon still fails to seal number plate reader deal: Privacy and justice advocates reject surveillance program – News

The city council decided on Thursday evening (September 1) to postpone a vote on approval again Austin Police Department to resume use Automated license plate reader Program.

The department already owns 20 ALPR cameras and has previously signed contracts Vigilant solutions to manage the software side – primarily the database of license plate images captured by ALPR cameras that officers query when they suspect a vehicle is linked to a criminal investigation. APD describes the technology as a “force multiplier” to expedite criminal investigations amid staff shortages, but privacy advocates describe the program as enabling mass government surveillance. The latter position gained in 2020 when the Vigilant contract expired and prosecutors looked for places to cut the APD budget. (The dollars, but not the actual programs, were returned to APD the following year after passage of a state law penalizing municipalities for “defunding” their police force.)

A coalition of justice and privacy advocates have pressured the council to vote against reintroducing the scheme. One concern is the harm that could happen to someone wrongly linked to a crime because the technology is misused, regardless of intent. Cases of ALPR abuse have been reported in cities around the world, including near Oakland, California, where Contra Costa County SheriffWashington lawmakers stopped a motorist at gunpoint after the vehicle was flagged as stolen in an ALPR database. It would have stolen but then returned to the rental company that owned it, who failed to update the police and ALPR database.

In May 2020, an Austin motorist had a similar experience. According to a complaint to the Office of Police Supervision, APD officers pulled over a woman after her license plate readers indicated the car was stolen. The officers asked the driver to back up towards them; When she was allowed to turn, they had their guns drawn. The complainant “states that she was frightened and did not know what she had done,” according to the OPO complaint. She was then handcuffed.

The applicant did not know what she had done because she had done nothing. The license plate didn’t match due to an incorrect data entry, so she was pulled over at gunpoint due to a typo. Her frustration in the OPO complaint was the response: “She feels it is inappropriate to put guns on cooperating individuals and that it is problematic when a minor clerical error puts citizens at risk of being shot by police officers,” reads the complaint . The officers involved in the incident were not punished for their behavior.

Aside from cases where ALPR errors can endanger lives, proponents point to the comprehensive location tracking that ALPR cameras allow for each person as they drive around the city. From both stationary cameras mounted over the roadway and mobile units on police patrol vehicles, the ALPRs monitor indiscriminately, capturing every visible license plate and adding it to the database, which is checked against “hot lists” of vehicles known to be involved is criminal behavior.

This database will be accessible to APD and, upon request, to dozens of other law enforcement agencies that cooperate in exchanging data with APD through the notorious Austin Regional Intelligence Center. It’s part of a nationwide network of state/federal “fusion centers” that was hacked three years ago in a celebrated activist spy called Blueleaks, illustrating the risk such large, juicy datasets are at while maintained on APD servers. Two years ago, millions of UK drivers saw their journey details captured by number plate readers and then leaked by hackers.

The risk decreases if license plate imagery is not retained for very long, which is being discussed in Austin. Councilor Mackenzie Kelly’s resolution provides for a 30-day retention period, which APD leader Joseph Chacon also supports; He told the Council that despite cybersecurity and other risks, the value of ALPRs as an investigative tool increases with the length of the retention period. “The more data we have and the further back in time it goes,” Chacon told Council, “the more likely it is that we’ll be successful in solving a wide range of crimes. It is crucial that APD has access to it [ALPR scans] for as long as possible that the Council is comfortable with allowing us to retain this data.” On the other hand, CM José “Chito” Vela, a criminal defense and immigration lawyer by profession, has proposed an amendment that would lengthen the retention period shortened to three minutes – just long enough to run against the hotlists that APD needs to match, and then deleted.

As Chacon pointed out, hundreds of ALPRs, many privately owned, are already in use by businesses, neighborhood associations or other law enforcement agencies in central Texas. All of this data can now be shared with law enforcement; Proponents wanted to know more about who could and couldn’t access the APD data.

Chacon said guidelines could be included in the contract with the vendor that succeeds Vigilant as the ALPR data/software vendor. This ODA policy, he suggested, could dictate that only certain employees have access to ALPR records, and it could oblige outside agencies — or even ARIC — to request the data before it is shared. The data exchange would not be automated. APD has previously said it would not use ALPRs to levy traffic fines or conduct warrant roundups. The technology would likely be used to help locate stolen vehicles, although Chacon said it could also be useful in some drug investigations.

Even this restricted access to the data is a concern for lawyers since Alicia Torres With leadership at the base explained. When Grassroots learned that ARIC was sharing data with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, it asked APD what information ICE provided to show the “terrorist or criminal context” needed to justify the request. “The biggest problem for us is that there is so little oversight of ICE and APD has been willing to share information with them,” Torres said. “If ICE knows someone they’re looking for is in Austin, they can just say they charge re-entry fees and are 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. Subject to applicable law, APD may, but is not obligated to, provide ALPR Data to other law enforcement agencies automatically or upon request. However, state legislatures could pass new legislation that would prohibit cities from restricting access to such information.

As David Johnson, also of Grassroots Leadership, told Council, a tool APD doesn’t have is one the state can’t force to use in a way the community doesn’t want. “It’s easier to prevent something from being built than to remove it once it’s part of the prison infrastructure,” Johnson said.

Council agreed to postpone ALRP vote; it will likely return to the podium at the September 15 council meeting.

Do you have something to say? That timeline welcomes opinion contributions on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.

About Ellen Lewandowski

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