Gables resident sues city over ‘Big Brother’ surveillance of cars on the street
October 26, 2018 07:30 AM
Updated October 26, 2018 06:30 AM
A Coral Gables resident is suing the “City Beautiful” over a license plate reader system that law enforcement officials say captures data on almost every vehicle that enters or leaves the city. The plaintiff, Raul Mas Canosa, says the collection and retention of vehicle movement data by license plate readers is a violation of constitutional rights to privacy.
“It’s a huge dragnet. There’s no distinction between criminals and criminal suspects and the innocent residents and visitors to Coral Gables,” said Canosa, who has, on occasion, likened the system to ‘Big Brother,’ the villain from a fictional dystopia in George Orwell’s novel, “1984.”
The data collected by license plate readers placed on all major arteries in and out of Coral Gables include a photo of the back of each vehicle and a record of the license plate number, and the associated time, date and location. Coral Gables officials say license plate readers can be used to quickly locate vehicles associated with crimes, and the aggregated data can help solve cold cases, although it has not published specific examples.
Critics worry large quantities of license plate data aggregated over time could also be used to infer a lot about a person’s life and where they — or at least their vehicle — has been in the city. “If you track someone’s public movements long enough and comprehensively enough, you can get a lot of information. You can get a very comprehensive view of things people might think are private, like where they might go to church or school,” said Canosa’s attorney, Caleb Kruckenberg of the D.C.-based New Civil Liberties Alliance. “The license plate readers — certainly the way they are being used by the city — it really is very invasive.“
The complaint, filed on Oct. 5 and first reported by the Miami New Times, alleges the Coral Gables license plate data collection and retention system violates privacy rights codified in the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects citizens from unlawful search and seizure.
“The City was served with the suit,” said Coral Gables City Attorney Miriam Soler Ramos in a statement to the Herald. “The complaint contains numerous factual inaccuracies about the City’s ALPR program and the legal claims that the complaint asserts are also contrary to well-established case law. The City looks forward to defending against the suit and defeating the claims in court.”
Previous judgments about license plates often rejected legal challenges on privacy grounds because license plates are in the public view, Kruckenberg said. He believes the lawsuit in Coral Gables could be precedent setting.
“Whatever the old rules might be, we have to understand that new technology raises new issues. If you aggregate enough data, even if it is public data, that can create privacy concerns,” Kruckenberg said.
With more than 30 cameras placed on major arteries around the city, the Coral Gables Police Department has captured more data on vehicle movements than any of the other 26 South Florida cities that use a similar system — 48.2 million data points representing individual vehicle movements around the city as of May 2018.
The reason is two-fold, Frank Fernandez, the city’s director of public safety, told the Miami Herald: Coral Gables has more commuter traffic than most cities, and Coral Gables has more cameras collecting data in general.
Canosa said he thinks license plate readers are great law enforcement tools to track a kidnapper, but believes their value quickly diminishes as time passes. License plate data from Coral Gables is stored for three years on a private server in Virginia. When Canosa requested the data associated with his own license plate for a seven-month period, he said he received 80 pages of information.
“Basically it’s everywhere Canosa’s been in the town that he lives in in the last three years, the city can pull up on a computer,” Kruckenberg said.
In some of the photos, Canosa’s dog can be seen poking its head out his window.
“To what extent are these tools useful? And what protections do we put in place to make sure they are not misused?” asked Canosa. “That’s a disaster down the road, if someone decides to use this information for malicious purposes.”
Fernandez said there are safeguards in place to make sure the system is not misused. License plate data can only be accessed by authorized detectives, and searches of the historical archives require an official case number to be attached, according to Fernandez. The Coral Gables Crime Intelligence Center where the data can be accessed is monitored by a video camera on the ceiling to keep users honest.
Contrary to claims in the lawsuit, the data are shared only with law enforcement agencies of 26 other South Florida municipalities, according to information provided by city spokeswoman Maria Rosa Higgins Fallon in May. She said Coral Gables data are not provided to ICE or any other state or federal law enforcement agency. She told the Herald, the data are never sold.
The license plate reader system used in Coral Gables was developed by Vigilant Solutions, a private company that claims to host the largest network of license plate data in the world. According to the company, Vigilant holds contracts with thousands of law enforcement agencies, providing data on at least 80 million vehicle locations each month across the United States.