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Proposal to reinstate license plate readers for APD sparks privacy concerns

Thursday, July 28, 2022 by Kali Bramble

After a two-year hiatus, City Council is reconsidering Austin Police Department’s defunct automated license plate reader program, rekindling debate over potential ramifications of the powerful surveillance tool.

The program was culled amid a nationwide call for police reform in 2020. But with a new budget cycle on the horizon, APD is proposing to reinstate its contract with machine vision and data analytics company Vigilant Solutions.

Vigilant’s software uses high-tech cameras to capture a massive number of license plate scans, which are geotagged and stored in its database for later access in criminal investigations. The software can also automatically flag plates that correspond with listed suspects in offenses like carjackings, abductions and hit-and-runs.

“In 2017, APD officers were able to successfully locate a kidnapped 2-year old from San Antonio after license plate readers alerted them to the vehicle traveling northbound on I-35,” said Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, who sponsored the resolution to reconsider the program. “This is a matter of life safety for people in the community. If we could save one child who is abducted, or if we could help one victim of a heinous crime get justice, then that’s worth it to me.”

The technology is becoming increasingly common, with data from 2015 already showing a 93 percent adoption rate among police departments in cities with a population over 1 million. Still, the practice remains contentious, with organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation sounding the alarm over potential privacy violations.

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes voiced corresponding skepticism, with particular concern for Vigilant’s capability to share license plate data with other municipal, state and federal agencies using the system. Historically APD has participated in this feature, with a report from Grassroots Leadership showing 39 incidents of sharing license plate readings with Immigration and Customs Enforcement from 2019 to 2020.

“Given the state of abortion in Texas, we have state leaders that have already publicly commented that they would bring forward legislation allowing counties to prosecute abortion providers outside of their jurisdiction,” Fuentes said. “I hate to even bring this up but that is a real threat … not knowing where the state will land on prosecuting abortions, both providers and seekers.”

APD’s Assistant Chief Jason Staniszewski noted that while such sharing is possible, all requests for information must pass through the department. “If there is a certain agency that APD does not want to have data, we do not have to give them permission,” Staniszewski said. “So, we have control.”

Council Member Ann Kitchen wondered whether this control might be better handled with some checks and balances, floating the idea that data inquiries could be reviewed by a committee like the Office of Police Oversight. Mayor Steve Adler also suggested reducing the yearlong storage period, proposing that unflagged plate readings be automatically deleted from the database after 30 days.

“I’m supportive of giving this tool to APD because I think it serves as a force multiplier,” Adler said. “My understanding is that APD will have to require whoever uses this to explain why and give reports to Council … but once we leave APD, I don’t think we can expect the same kind of reporting from other law enforcement agencies … and if the only standard is an alleged crime has been committed, that’s a pretty big catch-basin. So we’re trying to figure out how to not have that happen, or give our city the ability to shut it down.”

Still, Council Member Chito Vela held a firmer line. “I cannot support the creation of a database that can be later fished through for potential criminal activity. That has major civil liberties implications, we’ve seen it with national security agencies, we’ve seen it with just about every law enforcement agency or intelligence agency that has ever collected this information, that it will be fished through for other purposes,” Vela said. “I can support limited use in an investigation, but saving the data, even for some kind of limited time frame, I just can’t support.”

Council will continue its discussion of the program at today’s regular meeting, available to watch live or after the fact here.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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