Lexington License Plate Readers: What We Know

In December of 2021, The Lexington Fayette Urban County Government (LFUCG) entered into an agreement with Axon Enterprises and Flock Safety to participate in a one year test pilot program that will give the Lexington Police Department (LPD) access to 25 high tech automatic license plate reading cameras (ALPRs)

The agreement, signed by Mayor Linda Gorton on Dec. 8, allows the LFUCG to participate in this program cost-free for the initial one year trial period. Per the agreement, Axon Enterprises will pay all costs associated with  the initial roll out and installation while Flock Safety will provide their proprietary hardware, software and support services. In return, the two companies, in partnership with the National Police Foundation, will get to use compiled data from the surveillance of Lexington motorists in a national study on the impacts of Automatic License Plate Readers on crime.

When the final reading of the proposed agreement took place, the Lexington Fayette County Council  voted unanimously to adopt it, however, the agreement was bundled with more than a dozen other resolutions.

Whether it be local, state or federal, when legislation and governance is bundled, it makes it difficult for any elected representative to oppose portions of the bundle on a line by line basis without sacrificing something else that might be important to the lawmaker or his/her constituents. Bundling also provides a veil of secrecy for elected officials to hide behind, as votes can often be taken without those officials actually going on record about whether they truly are for or against specific pieces of legislation.

That appears to be exactly what the Council did in this instance.

Additionally, the LFUC Council went forward with this program without any plan in place for accountability or transparency for the implementation and use of these devices. As discovered by a previous investigation and open records request by local surveillance watchdog group We See You Watching Lexington, no such policies exist with regard to the use of high tech surveillance in Lexington.  

No public comments were obtained by the Council to get a feel for overall community opinion prior to voting to approve this measure.

According to the agreement entered into by the city, police will have access to ALPR data for 30 days. After 30 days, all information will be permanently deleted from Flock Safety’s servers. The LPD will be able to download and store data on their own servers at any time during that 30-day period. At the time this contract was approved, the LPD had not develped any polices relating to the retention and sharing of data it accesses. 

When a Lexington Police Department representative presented the plan to the Council on Nov. 30, 2021, he said it was “time-sensitive.” He said they wanted to get the agreement in place and then the LPD would go before the Public safety committee in early 2022 to “present both the project plan and the policy.”

So, it was literally a “you’ll see what’s in the plan after you pass it” scenario.

The big question is how will the LPD determine where to put these ALPR systems? There is concern they will diperportionatly target minority areas. According to the LPD official who presented the plan, Fock Safety will use crime data to determine the best locations.

“We will provide them with our crime data of crime across Lexington and work with them to determine appropriate locations to put these cameras, with the understanding that they would be across Fayette County and not located all concentrated in one area. ”

It is unclear what other agencies will have access to the data through Flock Safety, however, the contract does allow Flock to share the data with second and third parties. 

The ACLU of Kentucky has already voiced concern that Lexington’s use of Automatic License Plate Readers features no provisions preventing the expansion of the 30 day time limit. The ACLU is also warning that this program could result in too many cameras in predominantly minority neighborhoods. 

As for how data from these devices gets shared from one law enforcement agency to the next has already been established.

Recent revelations by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) relating to warrantless surveillance have placed cooperative efforts between state and federal agencies under the microscope.

What turned up confirms the alarming manner in which data is gathered and shared up and down an intricate information superhighway between state and local law enforcement, and federal agencies including FBI, CIA and NSA.

Through an intricate network of interconnected agencies and information sharing programs, data collected by a small town sheriff can eventually end up in national databases accessible by state, local and federal law enforcement agencies across the country. At the same time, warrantless data vacuumed up by the NSA can end up on that same sheriff’s laptop.

Information uncovered by the EFF demonstrates how this happens with license plate data. Recently released records obtained via open records requests encompassed the data compiled by 200 agencies that utilize Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs). The data accounts for more than 2.5 billion license plate scans in 2016 and 2017. Perhaps more concerning, this gigantic sample of license plate scans reveals that 99.5 percent of this data was collected regardless of whether the vehicle or its owner were suspected of being involved in criminal activity. On average, agencies share this data with a minimum of 160 other agencies. In some cases, agencies share this data with as many as 800 other agencies.

ALPRs combine high-speed cameras and optical character recognition technologies that quickly scan unique, individual license plates and convert the image into machine-readable text. They can be deployed in stationary locations in arrays that cover every vehicle and every direction along highways, interstates, suburban roadways and even entrances to events and locations such as gun shows and organic grow shops. They can also be mounted on police cars to passively collect license plate scans during routine patrols or to surveil specific communities by systematically driving through targeted neighborhoods. This mass surveillance technology operates lightning fast. It is capable of scanning every driver on the road and logging their location, regardless of whether they are suspected of being involved in a crime. Keep in mind, all drivers are required, by law, to tag all registered vehicles with license plates. Each unique plate is attached to the name of the person the vehicle is registered to. ALPRs essentially convert license plates into individual tracking devices.

After the plate data is collected, the ALPR array uploads the data to a central database, along with a time and date stamp and the GPS coordinates of your location. Police can then search these databases to see where drivers have traveled or to identify vehicles that have visited specific locations. Police also have the ability to add suspicious plates to “hot-lists,” allowing for real-time alerts when a vehicle is detected by an ALPR system.

It has become standard practice for all warrantless surveillance data gathered at the state level to also be uploaded to federal fusion centers operated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other federal agencies.  Fusion centers serve as clearinghouses for all kinds of information shared between federal, state and local law enforcement agencies—including data gathered by surveillance cameras, drones, intercepted cellphone and email communications, social network spying, as well as ALPRs and other invasive modes of surveillance. The DHS funds and ultimately runs 79 fusion centers across the U.S. The DHS describes homeland security intelligence/information fusion as the ”…process of managing the flow of information to support the rapid identification of emerging terrorism-related threats requiring intervention by government and private-sector authorities.”

Fusion centers were created to combat terrorism, but that is not how they are being used. The ACLU pointed to a bipartisan congressional report to demonstrate the true nature of government fusion centers: “They haven’t contributed anything meaningful to counterterrorism efforts. Instead, they have largely served as police surveillance and information sharing nodes for law enforcement efforts targeting the frequent subjects of police attention: Black and brown people, immigrants, dissidents, and the poor.”

Reuters revealed that the NSA’s surveillance operation is equally far removed from counter-terrorism in an August 2013 article. According to documents obtained by the news agency, the NSA passes information to state and local police through a formerly secret DEA unit known as Special Operations Divisions and the cases “rarely involve national security issues.” Nearly all of the information involves regular criminal investigations—often relating to the “war on drugs,” not terror-related investigations. In practice, the NSA knowingly and intentionally collects and stores this data without a warrant, culls and analyzes it in order to generate profiles on unsuspecting Americans, and then encourages state and local law enforcement to violate the Fourth Amendment by making use of this information in the course of their investigations.

Fusion centers are merely one component in a broader federal spying program. Federal agencies sweep up, collect and share astronomical amounts of data gathered at the state level. This is achieved through a relatively obscure entity called the Information Sharing Environment (ISE). ISE is comprised of federal and state partnerships that facilitate federal efforts to track millions of American citizens. According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security These analysts, operators, and investigators… have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.”

 In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of surveillance data, including information gathered without a warrant. Known ISE partners include the Office of Director of National Intelligence which oversees 17 federal agencies and organizations, including the NSA. ISE utilizes these partnerships to collect and share data on the millions of unwitting people they track. Again, this is achieved through the warrantless acquisition of phone calls, emails, web browsing history and text messages. These unconstitutional searches and seizures are often done without probable cause and in a manner that remains hidden and concealed from their targets’ knowledge.

Although it appears that contractually, Lexingtonians are on the hook to be mass surveilled over the next year, it is of vital importance for the townsfolk who live here to apply pressure and influence upon their respective Councilmembers to opt out of this program once the one year period lapses. As each new spy device or technology is introduced to our community, it opens the door to the next, more intrusive surveillance technology to move in alongside it. With each evasive addition, our town becomes more and more connected to the sprawling government surveillance state. 

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