Under pressure from police lobbyists, California state senators have killed a bill that would have made it harder for data-aggregators-on-wheels to automatically snap photos of parked cars’ license plates.
Senate bill SB-712, which had bipartisan support, would have tweaked a law that says you can’t cover your car’s license plate.
In California, it’s currently legal to cover your entire vehicle when it’s parked, including the license plate, to protect the car from the weather, as long as the cover is easy enough to pull up to get a look at the license plate.
However, it’s illegal to cover just the license plate when it’s parked, which you may very well want to do to protect your privacy from automated license plate readers (ALPRs). As of Tuesday, the bill is dead, and it’s still illegal to cover just your license plate.
The bill, which was endorsed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), was meant to protect location data privacy from the spying electronic eyes of ALPRs. As the EFF notes, ALPR data can reveal where you live, where you work, where you worship and where you drop your kids at school. From the EFF:
This measure was a simple way to empower people to protect information about where they park their cars, be it an immigration resource center, a reproductive health center, a marijuana dispensary, a place of worship, or a gun show.
Without the ability to legally cover your license plates, businesses can continue to send ALPRs, mounted on vehicles, driving up and down streets to document the travel patterns of drivers, to take photos of every license plate they see, to time-stamp and location-stamp those photos, to upload them to a central database, and to sell the data to lenders, insurance companies and debt collectors.
The ALPR companies also sell information to law enforcement, including to the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The DHS, in fact, last month released its updated policy for using this commercial ALPR data for immigration enforcement.
Last week, DHS’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arm officially gained agency-wide access to a nationwide license plate recognition database. That will enable ICE to track license plates across the country, giving it access to billions of license plate records and new powers of real-time location tracking: a profound source of concern to civil libertarians.
Although a vendor wasn’t named in the contract, an ICE representative told The Verge that the license plate records will be supplied by Vigilant Solutions.
Vigilant is the leading vendor of license plate recognition data. As of two years ago, the Atlantic reported that Vigilant had amassed roughly 2.2 billion license-plate photos and was capturing and permanently storing about 80 million additional geotagged images per month.
Two years on, Vigilant’s data set has continued to burgeon. It’s currently absorbing up to 100 million license plate readings per month, each tagged with a date, time and GPS coordinates. The company doesn’t necessarily collect all the data itself. Rather, it acquires data from partners such as car repo agencies and other private groups. Vigilant also partners with police departments, picking up yet more data from camera-equipped police cars.
Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst who studies license plate readers with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told The Verge that the biggest concern for civil libertarians is the scale of Vigilant’s network, which it’s put together almost completely outside of public accountability.
If ICE were to propose a system that would do what Vigilant does, there would be a huge privacy uproar, and I don’t think Congress would approve it. But because it’s a private contract, they can sidestep that process.
According to the EFF, police lobbyists misrepresented California’s SB-712, claiming that Amber alerts – alerts sent out about abducted children – don’t work if kidnappers can hide their license plates. Contrary to what the lobbyists claimed, vehicles in motion would have still been required to keep their plates uncovered under the bill, and good Samaritans wouldn’t have been prevented from identifying missing children.
The lobbyists also claimed that the bill would enable criminals to hide their parked cars: “to park in plain sight, undetected by law enforcement.” Well, that doesn’t make sense, the EFF argued: it’s legal now to cover the entire car. If crooks instead only covered their plates, police could more easily see the make, model and color of their cars. Besides, the bill would have legalized plate covers that could simply be raised by police who found a car that matched the description of a wanted vehicle.
The vote in California’s senate, which took place on Tuesday, rejected SB-712 18 to 12.
The EFF said fine, senators, you don’t like this bill, which would have protected driver privacy? Then you better spend the year coming up with a new solution.
8 comments on “California says no, you can’t cover your license plate”
This “and to sell the data ” is the only thing that bothers me.
This implies that the state will sell the PII of people to companies. Yet it is illegal for a person (as it should be) to ask for the name and address of someone by providing a license plate number.
Also sounds like it will be illegal to park your car in a garage or out of sight from the road the way it’s going. Got a farm and your house is 100 yards from the road- you might have to park at the road and walk to your house :/ micro managing the general population prisoners…. Aren’t the GPS tacking units (cell phones) enough, sigh…
“The EFF said fine, senators, you don’t like this bill, which would have protected driver privacy? Then you better spend the year coming up with a new solution.”
– Don’t worry, they wont.
The EEF is being a bit silly in this case – covering your tag when you park on a public road would have such a tiny effect on ANPR in general, because you still need your tag on display when you are driving your car, for example into and out of a parking lot, where a single stationary camera can reliably, errr, tag everyone’s tag while they are on their way to park and conceal it.
I guess I haven’t looked out for cameras in all UK parking lots, but I think one of the ideas is to let people opt-out of being swept up in semi-targeted yet over broad mobile ALPR canvassing of a parking lot, for example. I would hope most Californians like the idea of police still having to ask the property owner (or even get a warrant) for their parking lot surveillance video, which still likely doesn’t provide as precise detail compared to driving mobile ALPR around a target parking lot.
It is still illegal to cover ANY part of your license plate. You can be ticketed for covering the states website address. Go look at your license plate, thats a ticket waiting to happen.
California is becoming a police State. It’s no longer the Beautiful place it once was- Just a very corrupt system.
To be fair, in this case the State is declining to enact a regulatory tweak that makes only a minor change to the way the law has been for years. How that is turning CA into a police state is not clear. (If there is a relationship between having vehicle tags on display and being a police state, then CA is one already.)
I’d argue that rejecting this law is the right thing to do because it has been trumpeted as offering a benefit to privacy that it simply cannot provide. Your privacy from bulk ANPR data collection will be almost entirely unimproved by this law, because you have to display your tag whenever you drive, including past stationary cameras on private property leading to the majority of places you go to park. If you want ANPR controlled, seek laws with teeth to regulate it strongly and at all times for everyone, not just when you park at a gun show.
Legal changes that are promoted and popularised as delivering security and privacy benefits that they don’t, can’t and won’t are always ones to worry about, because of all the other things that would be better done instead…
…but now probably won’t be because “that legal avenue already got attended to.”
(For example: ask yourself how many things that could genuinely improve airline safety have been missed out on because we are already so committed to hunting down and destroying half-empty toothpaste tubes that are labelled 110g, even though you can take on two full tubes of 100g each. Been there, had that discussion.)
Lisa Vass, glad that I read your article! It is a truth that ANPR is an essential factor for ensuring law and order by proper surveillance. As a central agency that manages everything, the government needs data regarding each one of their citizens to be stored on their database. But no government agencies have the right to sell full private data of its own citizens to earn profit. It’s a really really bad practice according to my personal ideologies.
Even though it’s a fact that ANPR systems are invading to one’s privacy, we can’t simply ignore the benefits it’s providing for various individuals as well as business firms. When I researched a little about it, I came to read a case study of an automatic vehicle Identification using NPR which was formulated for a fleet management company. This solution allows the drivers to upload an image of a vehicle with which it have some dispute / had an accident and wants to know the identity of that anonymous vehicle. The system then returns full details of the vehicle by matching the number plate with those stored in the government database. This helps to easily solve existing disputes and deliver shipments to the end-users by avoiding any potential delay. This solution helped them to reduce operating cost up to a great extent and also helped to get an idea where their vehicle assets are residing at.
Why don’t the government give a small access to their vehicle database for the people who want to cross match a particular number plate instead of selling full data to them? A proper regulation should be enforced over what all details the public/ business people can access from the government database. What you all think? Let me know your opinions as well.