With the LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department under orders from the state Supreme Court to make public millions of license plates numbers that both agencies have collected through new digital scanning technology, Pasadena police are now facing a similar citizen’s demand to make public his own license number which has been surreptitiously collected any number of times and places over the past five years.

Ed Washatka, past president of the ACLU Pasadena/Foothills who on Oct. 19 requested data on his own license plate numbers under provisions of the state Public Records Act, said he became concerned last summer as he was participating in the local Police Department’s Citizens Police Academy. It was then that he witnessed automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) in action.

“I observed the use of the technology during a Pasadena PD ride along,” Washatka told the Pasadena Weekly. “It randomly and massively conducts surveillance on local autos. We need information on the levels of police surveillance to have a meaningful debate over the extent of police surveillance.”

‘A Misnomer’

In a separate but related development, local police came under additional criticism for the department’s use of Spokeo, a company based in Pasadena which has given police access to 12 billion records, 300 million people profiles, more than 95 social media platforms and all public data. Spokeo does not verify the validity of the information it passes on.

Use of the company’s services was discussed by the City Council’s Public Safety Committee on Aug. 16 as an information item. No indication was given then that the city would begin using those services. The Police Department had used Spokeo for a one-month trial period ending in mid August. City administrators also used the service in order to locate property owners, City Manager Steve Mermell said at that meeting.

“Surveillance technology proposals such as this one should not move forward without an open public debate about the civil liberties and civil rights costs,” said Mohammad Tajsar, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California.

“Members of the public should have the opportunity to scrutinize Spokeo’s software, including its data sources and any decision-making algorithms it employs,” Tajsar said.

Even though the trial was supposed to last for a month, and the city does not have a contract with the company, local officials acknowledged that the city is still using Spokeo’s services.

“The city does have a working relationship with Spokeo, which was publicly discussed at length at the City Council’s Public Safety Committee meeting in August,” said city Public Information Officer William Boyer in an email to the Pasadena Weekly. “Representatives of the ACLU spoke at that meeting. The information the city receives from Spokeo is similar to what any Spokeo customer receives.”

Spokeo Vice President Jason Mathis said the company is merely passing along public information, calling what Spokeo provides a complement to crime-fighting tools already being utilized by the Police Department.

“The characterization of Spokeo as a mass surveillance team is really a misnomer,” Mathis said.

Serious Risks

Washatka said he is concerned because police are gathering and storing information and average citizens have no idea how it is being sorted or what it is being used for.

In the case of license plates, ALPRs are used in some patrol cars and positioned on some city light standards throughout Pasadena.

A bill that is wending its way through the state Legislature could force law enforcement agencies to annually submit usage policy and transparency reports to the public.

Senate Bill 21, authored by Democratic state Sen. Henry Hill of San Mateo, would require law enforcement agencies to release yearly reports revealing the kinds of data collected; how many times each technology was deployed; how often the technology helped catch a suspect or close a case; and the number of times the systems were misused. 

Hill’s bill would extend protections provided by SB34, which he authored and was signed into law in 2015. That law “requires a public agency … that operates or intends to operate an ALPR system to provide an opportunity for public comment at a regularly scheduled public meeting of the governing body of the public agency before implementing the program.” The law also prohibits a public agency from selling, sharing, or transferring ALPR information, except to another public agency.

SB21 would also complement Senate Bill 741, a companion to SB34 also authored by Hill and signed by Brown, which, among other things, “prohibit(s) a local agency from acquiring cellular communications interception technology unless that acquisition is approved by a resolution or ordinance adopted by its legislative body at a regularly scheduled public meeting of the legislative body held pursuant to a specified open meetings law,” according to the text. “The bill would require that the resolution or ordinance set forth the policies of the local agency. The bill would require that the local agency make the usage and privacy policy available in writing to the public and if the local agency maintains an Internet website, to conspicuously post the usage and privacy policies on that site.”

Hill’s latest bill passed the Senate in May and is currently being considered in the state Assembly.

Tajsar called on the city to stop using Spokeo.

“The law doesn’t allow the police to keep files on all Pasadena residents’ Facebook posts, tweets, Instagram postings, real estate records, and voter registration information, and police shouldn’t access the same kind of comprehensive and sensitive information through a private company,” said Tajsar. “The city’s use of Spokeo for law enforcement raises serious risks of privacy and civil rights violations by the Pasadena Police Department, especially for the city’s over-policed communities of color.”

Vigilance Required

Washatka’s attorney Dale Gronemeier said the information requested by his client covers information on all ALPR video from Oct. 1, 2016 to Sept. 30.

In recent years, computer hackers have stolen information from several databases, including Equifax, Yahoo, Sony, even the Democratic National Committee.

If a hacker successfully acquired information from an ALPR, it could contain sensitive data that could lead to theft of names, addresses and other personal data, not just license plate numbers.

Some departments, like LAPD and Alhambra police, have already turned toward “predictive policing, which allows departments to use algorithms and database analysis to predict when and where crimes are likely to happen. 

Other technology provides police with information on such things as gunshots by using microphones, which also pick up nearby conversations. When that happens, police may maintain those conversations for up to two years.

In Carlsbad, city officials falsely claimed that the city did not use facial recognition software when, in fact, that department had been part of a regional face recognition pilot program for a number of years. All told, 14 Carlsbad officers were using special smartphones that capture faces and match them against the county’s mugshot database. City officials could not produce policies or guidelines for the use of the devices, and had no record of how many times the devices were used. The only information they had was the user’s manual for the device.

The LAPD recently announced it would begin a one year program aimed at testing the viability of drones, making it the largest department in the country to roll out unmanned aircraft for crime-fighting purposes.

Activists said they did not trust the department and feared the crafts would lead to even more mass surveillance. 

“The NSA was recording phone calls and storing the information in a database and no one knew about it,” Washatka said. “When databases are created for one reason, they can be compromised or become something else.”