EFF Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch and Investigative Researcher Dave Maass last night received the First Amendment Coalition’s 2017 Free Speech & Open Government Award in recognition for their work bringing transparency and accountability to law enforcement’s collection and use of automated license plate reader (ALPR) data. The award was shared with Peter Bibring, director of police practices at the ACLU of Southern California.
Lynch and Bibring fought a five-year legal battle to obtain ALPR data from Los Angeles law enforcement agencies to better understand how police use records obtained by scanning the license plates and collecting location data of tens of millions of law-abiding drivers. Mounted on squad cars and telephone poles, ALPR systems indiscriminately read license plates and record the time, date, and location a particular car was encountered. These records can reveal intimate details of our private lives—where we go, who we visit, where we work and when we visit the doctor.
EFF and the ACLU of Southern California filed suit after police agencies refused to turn over the documents, saying they were investigative records, a claim that’s tantamount to saying all drivers in Los Angeles are under investigation at all times, regardless of suspicion of criminal activity. In a major victory for transparency, the California Supreme Court ruled in August that collecting license plate data isn’t targeted at any particular crime, so the records couldn’t be considered part of a police investigation and kept secret.
“This sets a precedent that mass, indiscriminate data collected by the police using any kind of surveillance technology can’t be withheld as an investigative record just because it contains, or may contain, a small amount of criminal data,” said Lynch in her acceptance speech last night. “This should have broad impact on future public records requests filed by anyone in the state.”
The EFF team also worked in the California legislature, helping to pass a bill that requires all agencies or individuals that use ALPRs to publicly post privacy and usage policies. Through public records requests and organized crowdsourcing events with EFF supporters, the team created a definitive map of ALPR policies in California. EFF has also analyzed license plate data in Oakland to show disproportionate targeting of communities of color, revealed cybersecurity vulnerabilities in license plate readers around the country, and exposed how license plate reader companies are turning police into debt collectors.
Congratulations Jen, Dave, and Peter!