By Kathryn Watson (File photo)
When 28-year-old Alexandria resident David Hotle read Watchdog.org’s story last month about the images the Alexandria Police Department had randomly captured of a reporter’s vehicle with automatic license plate readers, it struck home.
“It was, ‘Wow, this is happening in my hometown,’” Hotle recalled. “I knew it was being used. I didn’t know how prevalent it was.”
Hotle, who has a background in digital imaging, a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering and just finished his MBA, wanted to know what images authorities might have of his car. So he filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Alexandria Police Department for any photographs or tracking data of his vehicle collected using automatic license plate reader technology.
About a week later, the police responded. Hotle wasn’t quite prepared for what he found.
“I think my first reaction was I felt like my privacy had been invaded a little,” Hotle said. “… Obviously, it’s unsettling.”
Over the past six months, police had captured 20 images of his vehicle, mostly when it was parked in front of his Alexandria home at night.
“They actually took a picture of my house, too,” said Hotle.
Of course, those pictures were taken from a public street. Still, Hotle, who moved to Alexandria last year but has lived in Northern Virginia since 2008, said he rarely parks in front of his home. Usually, he parks behind. Hotle said he’s probably parked there 10 times in the past year.
“They probably got me every time I parked there,” he said.
Hotle wasn’t the only one concerned. Watchdog.org received dozens of emails from people all over the commonwealth and country asking how they, too, could obtain their ALPR records from the police.
Alexandria police use 13 automatic license plate readers mounted on department vehicles to oftentimes indiscriminately capture vehicle plates, then stores the information connected to those plates for up to six months. Police say the information helps locate vehicles connected with suspected criminals — but they also locate unsuspected residents’ vehicles in the process.
Former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli told the Virginia State Police it’s illegal to randomly collect and store data of residents who aren’t suspected of a crime, but local police departments around the commonwealth continue the practice anyway, as Cuccinelli’s view is not legally binding.
What shocked Hotle perhaps as much as what he found is what he didn’t: By placing the photos he received into an image-reading system, he discovered police already had scrubbed some of the metadata — the data about the data — connected with the image. The metadata was missing the manufacturer and the model of the camera that took the pictures.
“That really stood out to me,” Hotle said.
Just as unsettling to Hotle is how easy it would be for police departments to take video of vehicles and their license plates.
“It likely wouldn’t be that much of a change to the technology that they’re using to make it pure video,” Hotle said.
Hotle also filed a request for his records with the Fairfax County Police Department, but authorities there said they had no photographs of his vehicle.
Democratic state Sen. Chap Petersen and Republican Delegate Rich Anderson are spearheading reforms for automatic license plate reader technology and plan to have bills ready by the 2015 legislative session to protect residents’ privacy and curb how long police can keep data.
“I’d like to put it on the record that I love the Alexandria Police Department,” Hotle said, praising the law enforcement officers’ work. “I really do.”
Still, if unrestricted, the technology is a powerful tool.
“I think some of this can be good, but I’m leery about the power angle if this is put in the wrong hands.”
Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter with Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @kathrynw5.