Undocumented immigrants and people seeking abortions could be put at risk by devices that read license plates and can used by almost anyone without much regulation, according to a new report by researchers at the University of Washington.
According to the report from the University of Washington Center for Human Rights (UWCHR), there is no Washington state law that regulates or restricts public agencies, private businesses or even individuals from setting up automatic license plate readers (ALPRs). Some local laws such as the Seattle Surveillance Ordinance put limited restrictions on government use of ALPRs.
These devices, which have gotten cheaper in recent years due to technological advancements, can take the form of permanent camera installations, temporary additions to speed limit signs or dashboard scanners fitted onto police cars.
Common uses of the technology include traffic enforcement and policing. UWCHR researchers found that both the Seattle Police Department and Seattle Department of Transportation operate vehicles with ALPR devices installed. These devices, and their proliferation around Washington, can contribute to a generalized state of surveillance where a driver is tracked throughout their journey in real time.
For example, Seattle police officers have been known to leave ALPRs running as they drive through traffic. These license plates are processed automatically into a database that can reveal details such as if the registered owner of a vehicle has outstanding warrants — leading directly to an arrest.
Of particular interest to the UWCHR report were the potential implications of the lack of regulation on the state’s and city’s sanctuary laws and ordinances. Since 2003, the city of Seattle has barred city employees, including police officers, from enquiring into a person’s immigration status or cooperating with federal immigration enforcement. During the Trump administration, Washington state followed suit, passing the Keep Washington Working Act in 2019. The law bars state and local law enforcement from actively cooperating with immigration enforcement.
Following the Supreme Court’s June 2022 Dobbs decision that overturned the federal right to abortion, a number of states have recriminalized the medical procedure. As of press time, 14 states have effectively banned abortion, including neighboring Idaho.
Since Dobbs, Seattle, King County and Washington have all passed ordinances or issued directives instructing law enforcement to not cooperate with the enforcement of anti-abortion laws. This includes not providing any assistance to investigations of people who seek medical care in Washington.
According to the report, data from ALPR readers is routinely and “indiscriminately shared” with commercial databases to which police departments, including Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), can purchase access. ALPR data is also shared to government databases used by ICE and other law enforcement agencies.
UWCHR Director Angelina Godoy argues that ALPRs present an effective loophole to these non-cooperation policies, allowing federal and out-of-state law enforcement to obtain information collected by Washington cops.
“The law is written to prevent the local cop on the beat or the sheriff from ... in the course of their work, they see somebody that they think may have a civil immigration violation, and they pick up the phone and call ICE, right? That would be clearly a violation,” Godoy said.
“But if they don’t do it by picking up the phone, if they’re just using a device that sucks up that person’s data, and then ICE has access to that same data. The way the law is written, that’s not a violation ... so that’s why I would consider this a loophole in the law. It’s clearly against the spirit of the law, but not the letter of the law,” she said.
Records obtained by UWCHR show that six Customs and Border Patrol agents obtained direct access to ALPR data collected by Okanogan County law enforcement. The Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office did not return a request for comment by press time.
UWCHR researchers argued that the sharing of license plate reader data effectively circumvents the need for a warrant to track someone because as soon as a driver passes by an ALPR, the vehicle’s identity and location can become available immediately to police.
ALPRs could also be used to enable harassment and surveillance by private groups and individuals, Godoy warned.
“In terms of reproductive rights, it’s a huge area of concern, because we already know that people who are opposed to abortion access or the practice of abortion are already, in some cases, willing to resort to violence and harassment, to stop abortions from happening or to deny people access to abortion,” she said. “And this is a technology that they can use towards that end.”
Godoy added that the threat of law enforcement sharing ALPR data collected in Washington to enforce abortion ban laws in Idaho is not an abstract fear.
“We know that law enforcement jurisdictions near the Idaho border also use ALPR technology and has historically shared their data with jurisdictions across the border in Idaho where now abortion has been criminalized,” Godoy said.
In an email to Real Change, Washington State Patrol (WSP) spokesperson Chelsea Hodgson wrote that the agency uses ALPRs to assist with stolen vehicle recoveries and registration fraud detection and that no personal information is collected using the devices. “[T]he WSP cannot share records with non-law enforcement personnel, and does not share information with other law enforcement agencies without a written memorandum of understanding or data sharing agreement,” Hodgson wrote.
At a Dec. 8 webinar co-hosted by UWCHR and immigrant and reproductive justice organizations, advocates called on policymakers to take action to protect people’s privacy and limit surveillance.
“Dragnet use of ALPR data needs to be outlawed,” said ACLU Washington tech policy lead Jennifer Lee. “So law enforcement needs to have reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred before they examine ALPR data, and they must not be examining license plate data in order to generate reasonable suspicion.”
Lee also said that the state should restrict the sharing of ALPR data to avoid it falling into the wrong hands.
Maru Mora Villalpando, an organizer with the immigrant rights group La Resistencia, said that she hopes the report can aid further advocacy against the surveillance of undocumented immigrants.
“We hope the release of this report serves as a starting place for our communities to educate themselves on the situation we find ourselves in,” Mora Villalpando said. “So we’re taking collective action to cease further expansion of such surveillance technologies.”
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Dec. 14-20, 2022 issue.