ALPR

Portsmouth Council votes 7-0 to reverse support for ALPRs

At the July 11 meeting, the Portsmouth Town Council voted 7-0 to rescind their approval of the pilot program to place Automated License Plate Readers at the approaches to the Mt. Hope Bridge.

The testimony of Portsmouth residents at the meeting--and the many calls, e-mails, and letters the Council received--citing privacy concerns and expressing doubt about the claims these cameras would be effective at suicide prevention led the councilors to reconsider their position.

One factor had to be the analysis the RI ACLU delivered prior to the meeting highlighting the civil liberties and governance concerns. You can read it here.

Thanks to the many folx who turned out, wrote in, and spoke up. And thanks to the members of the Portsmouth Town Council, who were willing to reconsider this decision, listen to the concerns of residents, and do the right thing.

Tags: 
02871, Localblogging, ALPR

Followup for Portsmouth Town Council on license plate readers at Mt. Hope Bridge

Members of the Council:

Following up on my prior letter to the Council, I'm very grateful for the initial response I've received and the tentative approval to place this item on the agenda at the July 11 meeting for reconsideration. As backup for that discussion, I'm attaching a PDF of the minutes of the Bristol Town Council meeting of May 11 when the proposal was discussed there as well as the Bristol PD policy on ALPR.

It is significant to note that Bristol Town Council agenda item was not for "consideration" but rather for "presentation," and their action was to "receive and file." So Portsmouth may have taken action based on an assumption about what Bristol had done which may not be accurate: this was not a robust hearing about the facts, but a presentation from the PD.

Getting to the policy, I have annotated the enclosed document to highlight differences, as well as points that bear further scrutiny.

There is a significant difference in the usage policy (Section II of the PD policy document) with Bristol adding a paragraph specifying broader uses (including homeland security, which renders the exclusion of ICE and CBP moot.) It is important to note that Portsmouth residents driving over the bridge would necessarily be subject to this, even if Portsmouth PD policy differs.

Another key difference is government oversight. In Section IV, which bears on acquisition of ALPR or expansion of scope, the Bristol PD requires an "advertised public hearing," while the Portsmouth PD only requires a "public presentation to the Town Council." A presentation is not a hearing. Democratically elected officials exercising oversight is critical, and while I trust both the Council and the Portsmouth PD, there is no substitute for public input.

Section V, Portsmouth adds "vehicles associated with criminal investigations" to the list of ALPR uses. Odd for something being justified for suicide prevention. It's almost as if suicide prevention is a pretext for inserting these cameras into our community.

This is a minor but telling nit: Section V (E) shows that Portsmouth PD simply started with a thoroughgoing copy of the Bristol PD policy, since it includes the transposition of CPB [sic] for CBP.

And another nit: Section VI (G). On a purely technical note, the phrase used here is "Chief of Police or his designee." Since this is a policy theoretically meant to survive for some duration, would it not be more appropriate to say "their" designee.

Section VI(G)5 specifies multiple locally created hot lists to be loaded into the system for scanning: SIU, Detectives, Traffic, and All Department. If this is really for suicide prevention, what are all these hot lists for?

In the Bristol backup, Flock justified their single-source contractor status by saying that they are the only company with the capabilities to "analyze vehicle license plate, state recognition, vehicle color, vehicle type, vehicle make and objects (roof rack, unique hubcap, etc.) based on image analytics." Again, this belies the label "ALPR" for these cameras; they capture much, much more than license plates. The words we use to describe things matter, and ALPR conceals more than it reveals about what these cameras do.

And the inclusion of the discussion of single source raises questions about the acquisition process: If Portsmouth PD were going to pay for these cameras, wouldn't they have to go out to bid? Is running a "free" pilot program just a way to bypass the bidding process? Who pays to take the cameras down at the end of the "pilot?" Or does Flock expect that this will just roll over into a yearly $5,000 subscription?

And speaking of "free," given that the cameras require maintaining local "hit lists" (including a requirement for weekly audits of lists) and the policy specifies a mandatory quarterly data audit, as well as the creation of a "transparency portal" updated quarterly, that means there is a non-zero staff time cost, which I assume was not factored into the decision.

I thank the Council for your time and consideration, and for all you do for our town.

Best regards.

Tags: 
02871, Localblogging, civil liberties, ALPR

Request to Portsmouth Town Council to reconsider license plate readers at Mt. Hope Bridge

Members of the Council:
I write to ask you to reconsider your approval, at your last meeting, of Automated License Plate Readers (ALPR) at the approaches to the Mount Hope Bridge. While the goal of suicide prevention is laudable, recording and searching 450,000 license plates each month is a serious intrusion into the privacy of everyday Rhode Islanders and is out of proportion to the number of lives such an action would purportedly save.

The solution to preventing jumpers is nets, not surveillance. The inclusion in the recently approved state budget of funding to begin the process of adding suicide barriers to the state's bridges makes adding ALPRs particularly ill-timed and redundant. Using this as a justification no longer passes the test of "least restrictive means" test for objectives at odds with Constitutional rights to privacy. For this reason alone, I urge the Council to abandon this project.

Nor does it seem that the vendor, Flock Safety, considers suicide prevention to be part of their core mission. Their web site leads with "Reduce crime in your community by up to 70%" and "Protect against property crime, violent crime, stolen vehicles, and more." The one mention of suicide prevention is an unattributed anecdote about a single case in Tega Cay, SC. No news articles could be found in a web search to substantiate this solitary claim. If this really was a featured benefit of the system, one would expect there to be more robust support; a general web search turned up no news stories in which ALPR were mentioned in preventing suicides. The use of this technology appears to be a solution in search of a problem at best, and at worst, a pretext by which to insert this vendor's cameras into our community.

Flock's web site claims that their cameras "capture objective evidence, make it actionable with machine learning." As someone familiar with ML, I can categorically state that all such systems are inherently imperfect -- that's the *nature* of machine learning. ML systems use weighted probabilities to tune their recognition, and they are susceptible to bias introduced by the sample sets used to train them. The point is that such systems can not, by their essential nature, be trusted not to produce false positives. The consequences of a police intervention that goes wrong based on an erroneous hit are clearly a foreseeable risk.

Turning to the Portsmouth PD policy included in the backup for the meeting, section III(F) articulates that the ALPR hits may include (but are not limited to) "stolen car, wanted person, missing person, domestic violation protective order or terrorist-related activity." If the stated objective of this deployment is suicide prevention, where is that in the list?

In section V(B) the policy states that ALPR will not be used to record identifying features of a vehicle like color, bumper stickers, or unique details "unless for a purpose authorized under subsection (a)" -- but section A casts a very wide net indeed, including vehicles associated with wanted, missing, or endangered persons, stolen vehicles, vehicles that return an NCIC match, and vehicles associated with criminal investigations. So any vehicle that falls into one of those categories will have more than its plate recorded.

And the Flock FAQ, included in backup, is emphatic on what will be captured (page 2, paragraph 3): "The Falcon captures the make, vehicle type, color, license plate (full, partial, missing), state of the license plate, and the unique features of the vehicle, including damage and after-market alterations." Captured and stored for a month and searchable. This should make anyone driving over the Mount Hope Bridge uncomfortable.

Policy section V(B) makes a point of saying that the number of times a vehicle travels past the camera will not be tracked -- but, again, the exception in V(C) says that "suicide prevention" would make tracking allowable. Is that only in the case of an existing BOLO, or is this a prospective machine-learning sifting through the data to find multiple crossings within a time span? Without clarification, this is unacceptably muddy. Students attending Roger Williams University who live in Portsmouth will undoubtedly be erroneously flagged up by the system, which will both waste PD time and send a very unwelcome message.

In section V(H), the policy states that Flock will "ensure proper maintenance and security of data stored in their data towers." As a career IT professional, I have no idea what a "data tower" is. Furthermore, in the Flock Safety FAQ included in the backup, on page 3 paragraph 7, it states that the footage is "stored in the cloud." These two statements are irreconcilable. Either it is Flock's data center or it is not. If it is not, then who is Flock's cloud service provider? Does Flock have control over those servers? What are the physical security provisions at the cloud provider's data center? These are questions that need to be answered about any storage of sensitive data.

In the section on procedure, IV(F), "F Officers will not take any police action that restricts the freedom of any individual based solely on an ALPR alert unless it has been validated." It's not clear from context what the standard for "validation" is here.

The section continues, "Officers are reminded that they need to have reasonable suspicion and/or probable cause to make an enforcement stop of any vehicle...[...]...Officers should attempt to visually match the driver or should have another legal basis for making the stop." I am very uncomfortable with the use of the word "should" here; the Fourth Amendment requires a "must." If you have not committed a crime in an officer's presence or the officer has no reasonable and articulable suspicion to justify such action, there *must* be no seizure. See Terry v. Ohio, 392 US 1(1968)5(b).

For these reasons, which I am happy to reiterate in person should you choose to reconsider this at a future meeting, I respectfully request that the Council rescind their approval.

Thank you for your time and consideration, and for all you do for our Town.

Best regards.

Edited 2:53pm 6/20/22 to correct the number of cars crossing the bridge each month; the math mistake was mine.

Edit 6/25. Followup here: http://harddeadlines.com/2022/06/23/followup-portsmouth-town-council-license-plate-readers-mt-hope-bridge

Tags: 
02871, Localblogging, Town Council, civil liberties, ALPR

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