Is the City of Modesto Our Own Big Brother?

Steve Ringhoff

Here’s another of Steve Ringhoff’s deep dives into the otherwise covert operations of our city authorities. Should we be concerned? You decide.

For several years now, the MPD has been collecting data on your travels by photographing your license plate and storing the data, first locally then, later, in a central database to which public and private security operations have access.

It is the perhaps unintended consequence of an anti-auto theft program that has created a treasure trove for hackers who could tell where you went and when, but, also, where you like to shop, worship or get a massage.

The technology used is often called ALPR for Automated License Plate Reader. A camera on a patrol car or affixed to an object such as a light pole, captures the image of a license plate on a stopped or passing vehicle. An algorithm converts the image to a digital input for storage, noting the time, date, and location of the plate “capture.”

Beginning in 2014, the City of Modesto teamed with Macerich Property Management Co., LLC, operator of the Vintage Faire Mall, to install ALPR cameras at the intersections of Dale and Standiford, and Sisk and Standiford, two primary feeder streets for the mall. Macerich donated $33,057 towards the purchase of the cameras for one of the intersections and the City paid for the other, plus another eight mobile cameras.

The city currently has 12 mobile units, plus the fixed locations near the mall. The City has put out for bids, cameras to cover all directions at the intersection of McHenry and Briggsmore, probably the busiest intersection in the city.

To try to determine how many “captures” the police make each year, we asked the city to provide us the captures for a random week, last September. If that week was typical, about 11,000,000 captures are made each year from both the fixed and mobile units.

The initial idea behind license plate reading technology was to allow something akin to “real time” knowledge of the whereabouts of stolen vehicles, vehicles involved in situations such as Amber Alerts, and other “wanted” vehicles.

The police would have a “hot list” of plates, and officers would be alerted if the ALPR pinged on one of those plates. Nobody thought that was a bad idea.

Concern has been raised about what is called “locational privacy.” That is, do the police get to know where you have stopped for whatever reason? The ALPR vacuums up all license plates, not just the bad guys.

And, the system is such that a hacker with your license plate number could see, by location, everywhere the ALPR spotted your plate for at least one year. In a manual for use of the system, an illustration is shown which points out where a suspect “is known to frequent” (home, work, girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s house, etc.).

Hacking and “leakage” become concerns. No system is hack proof (just think Target, Equifax et al.), so the trick is to keep the treasure trove as small as is practical.

The City of Modesto’s policy calls for retention of the data for not less than one year. In contrast, the CHP, where it uses ALPR, is allowed to retain the data for only 60 days.

Leakage could come at the local level if an unauthorized use is made of the system or, now, at a regional level, since the MPD has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC) to store the ALPR data downloaded by the MPD. The NCRIC is a regional agency composed primarily of law enforcement agencies around the Bay Area and out into the Valley. (This agreement does not appear to have been taken up by the City Council.  On behalf of the City it is signed only by Chief Carroll)

Pursuant to this agreement, all agencies participating have 24/7 access to the NCRIC data. A few of the listed agencies appear to be private concerns, such as the Corte Madera Mall.l

Its involvement brings up an interesting conundrum. The company which makes the system used by the MPD, 3M, put out advertising material which said that, in a pilot project, an unnamed mall in Modesto coordinated with the MPD. The mall had ALPR readers on vehicles which cruised the mall parking lot, reading plates and comparing them to its own “hot list,” which included disgruntled employees, suspected shoplifters and VIPs.

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