Privacy groups push back against Sheriff's Department license plate database
by Brian Charles
The massive storage of license plate and vehicle data by law enforcement agencies across Southern California is sparking a debate over the privacy rights of citizens in their cars.
Through interagency agreements among the Los Angeles and San Bernardino county sheriff's departments and more than 30 police departments, cameras called Automated License Plate Readers -- mounted to police cruisers or in fixed locations -- capture the data on millions of cars across the region. License plate numbers and a vehicle location history are then automatically fed into and permanently stored on one of three databases.
On average, a cruiser equipped with an ALPR camera can collect data on 10,000 cars in a single shift, according to industry reports. A lawsuit filed by two privacy rights groups says each of the 7 million registered cars in greater Los Angeles has had its license plate scanned an average of 22 times since the program launched.
The curation of so much information on personal vehicles has raised the ire of privacy groups, which are beginning to push back against the data mining efforts of Los Angeles County's two largest law enforcement agencies.
"Law enforcement will tell you that these cameras are helpful in finding stolen vehicles and people with outstanding warrants connected to a vehicle," said Jennifer Lynch, attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy rights group. "But that does not justify recording the movements of millions of people; it's like assuming everyone in L.A. is a criminal or will be one in the future."
In 2012, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and Electronic Frontier Foundation requested a week's worth of data collected by the Sheriff's Department and the Los Angeles Police Department, which maintains its own database.
The law enforcement agencies declined to release much of the information requested.
In May, both groups filed a lawsuit to compel the Sheriff's Department and the LAPD to release the data collected during a one-week period in 2012.
The groups wanted to get their hands on the data in hopes it "would shine some light on what is being collected," said Peter Bibring, staff attorney with the ACLU Foundation. "The information will also relay how license plate readers were deployed based on race and class."
The parties will appear in civil court in August for a pretrial proceeding.
Sheriff's Department spokesman Steve Whitmore said the agency first denied the ACLU and EFF's joint request to release the data due to privacy concerns.
"We are more than willing to let a judge decide what should and should not be released after hearing both sides of the issue. We believe we will prevail," Whitmore said in a statement.
The ACLU and EFF also contend that law enforcement has failed to develop hard and fast rules for how long the data is stored.
"The concern is raised when they keep information on cars that have not been involved in a crime at the time the car's plate is captured," Bibring said. "The Sheriff's Department has said it would like to keep the data forever."
The department's Automated License Plate Readers server retains data for only two years, but some of the data captured through the car-mounted cameras finds its way to other databases, where it is stored permanently.
"Generally, most investigators only have access to about two years of data on our ALPR server, but we have to use the broader standard of 'indefinitely,' as the data is and can be exported to the department's searchable databases such as Palantir and COPLINK, which retain the data indefinitely," Whitmore said via email.
The Redondo Beach Police Department, which has used the technology since 2008 and recently entered into an interagency agreement with the Sheriff's Department to share vehicle data collected on the readers, supports permanent storage of data.
"How long is data valuable if it's used to solve a crime?" Redondo Beach Police Chief Joseph Leonardi said.
Redondo Beach operates seven police cruisers and two mobile trailers equipped with the license plate readers. Leonardi said his department alone has likely collected data on millions of cars.
When a license plate is captured by an ALPR camera, the information is run through a computer system to check whether it has been reported stolen or connected to a crime. Those slivers of information aren't enough to solve crimes, but can generate important leads.
"It's just an investigative lead," Leonardi said. "It's up to each investigator to determine what happens -- you either do search warrants or you just talk to the person. It would not only be unwise but it would be wrong if people acted on this data without any further investigation."
Leonardi declined to offer specific details on the effectiveness of the program.
Privacy groups point to two nightmare scenarios where license plate readers and the massive databases have been abused by police officers.
"There was an example in the Wall Street Journal about an officer who would sit outside gay bars and collect data, contact people and try to blackmail them," said Lynch, referring to a 1998 criminal case in which Washington, D.C., police officers pleaded guilty to extortion for doing just that.
In 2011, the New York City Police Department used license plate readers in the controversial tracking of Muslims traveling to and from religious gatherings.
Law enforcement has placed some limitations on its system in an effort to avoid its misuse.
ALRP data doesn't give officers in the field any information on who owns the car, and officers are only allowed to search the databases as part of a criminal investigation, officials said.
"Our ALPR data resides separately and does not integrate or tie registration data or any personally identifiable information to the registered owner," Whitmore said. "All we glean from the information is that a particular license plate -- not necessarily the registered owner or vehicle for that matter -- was seen at a particular time and place prohibited from searching the database."
The tug-of-war between privacy rights groups and law enforcement over the limits on surveillance has raged since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States prompted the call for increased monitoring, Bibring said.
Surveillance cameras have become commonplace, and the recent NSA cellphone surveillance scandal has exposed the breadth of law enforcement's data mining efforts.
However, privacy groups don't believe terrorism or advancements in technology give the government wide latitude to cull data on citizens.
"When you are driving in public, you don't expect not to be seen, but being seen is not the same as having your location known everywhere you go in your car," Bibring said.
What critics of license plate readers and massive data storage want is a public discussion on the matter.
"Law enforcement adopts these technologies without public discussion and without conversation about what policies should be put in place for privacy," Bibring said. "If police were able to monitor all of our emails and conversations, there would probably be very little crime, but that's not the society we want to live in or one our Constitution envisions."
Plane for Havana Leaves Moscow Without Snowden
by ELLEN BARRY, PETER BAKER and DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
MOSCOW — Edward J. Snowden, the former national security contractor accused of espionage, did not leave Moscow as expected on a flight to Havana on Monday, raising questions about what, if any, alternative travel plans he may have made.
It also raised the possibility that the Russian government had detained him, either to consider the demands by the Obama administration to intercept him and return him to the United States or perhaps to question him for Russia's own purposes.
Mr. Snowden has not been seen publicly or photographed since his reported arrival in Moscow on Sunday afternoon from Hong Kong, and passengers on that flight interviewed at the airport could not confirm that he was on board.
The situation remained a confounding and undoubtedly infuriating one for American officials, who have charged Mr. Snowden with illegally disclosing classified documents about American surveillance programs.
On a visit to New Delhi, Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized on Monday that Russia should send Mr. Snowden to the United States. "I would urge them to live by the standards of the law,” Mr. Kerry said.
Security was extremely tight Monday at the gate at Sheremetyevo Airport as agents called for boarding the aircraft, part of a fleet shared by Aeroflot and Delta. Police officers in green, wide-brimmed hats stood around the plane on the tarmac, and the entrance to the gate inside the terminal was cordoned off with about 25 feet of blue ribbon.
Mr. Snowden was said to have reserved a ticket on the flight, Aeroflot 150, in coach seat 17A. But just before the plane pulled away, Nikolay Solkolov, an Aeroflot employee at the gate, said that Mr. Snowden was not on board. “He is not there,” Mr. Sokolov said. “I was waiting myself. A police officer asked a member of the ground crew if everyone had arrived. The reply was: ‘Minus five.'”
Mr. Snowden was aided in his escape by WikiLeaks, the antisecrecy organization, whose founder said he helped arrange special refugee travel documents issued by Ecuador. There was no immediate comment from WikiLeaks on Mr. Snowden's whereabouts. Earlier on Monday, the group posted a message on Twitter criticizing the United States.
“US bullying Russia for Snowden's rendition is counterproductive. No self-respecting state would accept such unlawful demands,” the group wrote. The use of “rendition” was an explicit reference to the way the United States has handled terrorism suspects.
The unwillingness of the Hong Kong authorities to detain Mr. Snowden, and Ecuador's public declaration that it was considering his asylum request, underscored just how little sympathy the United States is finding from several countries over the unveiling of its surveillance efforts.
Russia had seemed intent on allowing Mr. Snowden to transit through Moscow but at the highest levels of the Russian government, officials seemed to be pulling a page from a cold war playbook, coyly denying any knowledge about Mr. Snowden.
“Over all, we have no information about him,” Dmitri Peskov, the spokesman for President Vladimir V. Putin, told Reuters early on Monday.
Nikolay N. Zakharov, a spokesman for the Russian Federal Security Service, the F.S.B., declined to say if intelligence officials had met with Mr. Snowden during the roughly 21 hours that he spent at the transit area of the airport or had sought to get a look at any of the trove of secrets he is said to be carrying on several computers.
“On this question, we will not comment,” Mr. Zakharov said.
Although there were a scattering of tourists carrying bags from the duty-free shops preparing to board the plane, a large number of the passengers were journalists trailing Mr. Snowden on the Russia-to-Cuba leg of his extraordinary odyssey, which began early Sunday when he fled his hideout in Hong Kong.
Several journalists carrying American passports were ejected from the aircraft because of visa requirements to visit Cuba.
Diplomats and law enforcement officials from the United States warned countries in Latin America not to harbor Mr. Snowden or allow him to pass through to other destinations after he fled Hong Kong for Moscow, possibly en route to Ecuador or another nation where he could seek asylum.
“The United States has been in touch via diplomatic and law enforcement channels with countries in the Western Hemisphere through which Snowden might transit or that could serve as final destinations. The U.S. is advising these governments that Snowden is wanted on felony charges, and as such should not be allowed to proceed in any further international travel, other than is necessary to return him to the United States,” a State Department official in Washington said.
In New Delhi, Mr. Kerry said that the United States had extradited seven individuals to Russia in response to Russian extradition requests. “I think reciprocity in the enforcement of the law is pretty important,” he said.
Mr. Kerry said that it was ironic that Mr. Snowden may have been seeking the cooperation of China and Russian in his flight, given their positions in restricting Internet freedom. William Burns, the deputy secretary of state, has been in touch with Russian authorities on the Snowden matter, Mr. Kerry said.
It was unclear how Mr. Snowden spent his time at the airport or precisely where. The departure of the flight to Havana from Moscow came after an all-night vigil by journalists who were posted outside a hotel in the transit zone of the airport where Mr. Snowden was apparently staying. But on Monday morning, hotel staff said that no one named Snowden was staying there.
Russian news services had reported that Mr. Snowden would take a Monday afternoon flight to Cuba, prompting a late rush for tickets from the horde of journalists gathered at the airport. But others dismissed it as a ruse to put the news media and others off Mr. Snowden's trail.
The White House, in its first official statement released just after midnight Monday morning, expressed disappointment in Hong Kong's decision to allow Mr. Snowden to leave and pressed Russia to turn him over, citing the cooperation between the two countries since the Boston Marathon bombings.
The turn of events opened a startling new chapter in a case that had already captivated many in the United States and around the world. Mr. Snowden's transcontinental escape was seen as a fresh embarrassment for the Obama administration and raised questions about its tactics in the case, like its failure to immediately revoke Mr. Snowden's passport.
It also further complicated Washington's ties with Russia and China, where at least some officials take delight in tweaking what they call American double standards.
Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, said in an interview from his own refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London that he had raised Mr. Snowden's case with Ecuador's government and that his group had helped arrange the travel documents. Baltasar Garzón, the renowned Spanish jurist who advises WikiLeaks, said in a statement that “what is being done to Mr. Snowden and to Mr. Julian Assange — for making or facilitating disclosures in the public interest — is an assault against the people.”
Obama administration officials expressed frustration that Hong Kong allowed Mr. Snowden to board an Aeroflot plane bound for Moscow on Sunday despite the American request for his detention. But they did not revoke Mr. Snowden's passport until Saturday and did not ask Interpol to issue a “red notice” seeking his arrest.
An administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said no red notice was requested because they are “most valuable when the whereabouts of a fugitive are unknown.” Mr. Snowden was known to be in Hong Kong, so his provisional arrest was sought under an existing American agreement with Hong Kong.
On Sunday, the Hong Kong authorities said that the American arrest request “did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law,” and therefore they could not legally stop Mr. Snowden from leaving. The Justice Department rejected this explanation and provided a timeline of interactions suggesting that the Hong Kong authorities first requested “additional information” on Friday.
“At no point, in all of our discussions through Friday, did the authorities in Hong Kong raise any issues regarding the sufficiency of the U.S.'s provisional arrest request,” a department official said. “In light of this, we find their decision to be particularly troubling.”
Legal experts said the administration appeared to have flubbed Mr. Snowden's case. “What mystifies me is that the State Department didn't revoke his passport after the charges were filed” on June 14, said David H. Laufman, a former federal prosecutor. “They missed an opportunity to freeze him in place.” He said he was also puzzled by the decision to unseal the charges on Friday rather than waiting until the defendant was in custody.
While officials said Mr. Snowden's passport was revoked on Saturday, it was not clear whether the Hong Kong authorities knew that by the time he boarded the plane, nor was it clear whether revoking it earlier would have made a difference, given the Ecuadorean travel document that Mr. Assange said he helped arrange. When Mr. Snowden landed in Moscow, he was informed of his passport revocation.
Mr. Assange said he did not know whether Mr. Snowden might be able to travel beyond Moscow using the Ecuadorean document. “Different airlines have different rules, so it's a technical matter whether they will accept the document,” he said.
Mr. Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London a year ago to avoid being sent to Sweden for questioning in a sexual-offense investigation, but the British authorities have not permitted him to leave the country without risking arrest. Mr. Snowden could end up in a similar predicament, accepted by Ecuador or another country but unable to get there.
Mr. Snowden, who by his own account downloaded classified documents while working in Hawaii for the National Security Agency as an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, has said he unveiled secret American surveillance programs because he believed they violated privacy boundaries.
American officials characterize it differently. “I don't think this man is a whistle blower,” Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “Whatever his motives are, and I take him at face value, he could've stayed and faced the music. I don't think running is a noble thought.”
Some of his disclosures may have provided motivation to aid his flight in both Beijing and Moscow, where he is celebrated as a hero by the public.
Mr. Snowden told The South China Morning Post that the National Security Agency had tapped into Chinese mobile telephone companies to read millions of text messages, hacked dozens of computers at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, and other computers operated by Pacnet, a major telecommunications company with headquarters in Hong Kong and Singapore. According to The Guardian newspaper, he also provided a document showing that the United States during a conference in London in 2009 was able to gain access to the communications of Dmitri A. Medvedev, then Russia's president and now its prime minister.
Mr. Snowden's presence on Russian territory dealt a fresh blow to a relationship that has deteriorated sharply over the past year over issues like Syria and human rights. Yet Russian leaders seemed to be making efforts to keep his visit relatively quiet, not parading Mr. Snowden before cameras or trumpeting his arrival.
“We have nothing to do with this story,” said Dmitri S. Peskov, a spokesman for President Vladimir V. Putin. “I am not in charge of tickets. I don't approve or disapprove plane tickets. We're not the proper people to address this question to.”
But Dmitri V. Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Mr. Snowden could remain in Moscow. “Russia is turning into a haven — virtually, intellectually and physically — for those who have an ax to grind with the West, who are whistle-blowers or have problems with Western authorities,” he said. “It's the only country in the world that at this point can afford it, or thinks it can afford it.”
Ecuador, like Cuba and Venezuela, has expressed antipathy toward what it considers arrogant American policies in Latin America and demonstrated with its decision to shelter Mr. Assange that it was willing to defy Washington. Ricardo Patiño, the country's foreign minister, said in a Twitter message that it had received an asylum request from Mr. Snowden and he later scheduled a news conference for Monday.
How long Mr. Snowden can evade arrest remained to be seen. In an interview with The Guardian earlier this month, he expressed pessimism. “You can't come up against the world's most powerful intelligence agencies and not accept the risk,” he said. “If they want to get you, over time they will.”