A graphic from the Chicago Police Department's manual on using license plate scanner-equipped squad cars (Source: CPD's "Motorola / PAGIS Automatic License Plate Reader User Guide," obtained by the ACLU in a FOIA request)

Chicago Police Tight-lipped About Use of License Plate Scanners, Despite $500,000 New Contract

A secretive contracting process—and limited responses to information requests—leave Chicagoans in the dark about how their license plate data is being collected and used.

BY Joel Handley

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Vigilant Solution’s NVLS database grew from 1 billion records in 2013 to more than 3 billion today—an average of 12 license-plate scans for each of the 253 million vehicles in the United States—and adds more than 70 million new scans every month.

“We Surveil and Protect” is an ongoing investigation into the techniques and technology that the Chicago Police Department employs to spy on activists, unions and heavily policed communities of color.

To sell law enforcement on its nationwide network of automatic license plate readers (ALPRs), Vigilant Solutions tells the story of a fugitive’s apprehension. In early 2013, a Long Beach, California detective entered the license plate number of a long-sought credit-card fraudster into Vigilant’s National Vehicle Location Service (NVLS) database, which contained 1 billion scans of plates, compiled from both private and law enforcement-run ALPR networks. Up popped photographs of the suspect’s car, tagged with the date, time and GPS location. Many of the recent sightings were in Chicago parking lots. The detective asked for help from the U.S. Marshal’s Chicago office, which found and arrested the suspect, and extradited her back to California.

This account, from a Vigilant press release, is the only publicly available record of a specific arrest made in Chicago using ALPR technology, despite the fact that the Chicago Police Department has used license plate scanners since at least 2006 and began using Vigilant’s software and database in September 2013.

As with other high-tech surveillance gear, the city keeps information about the ALPR programs under tight seal. And with no regulations to govern—or mandates to disclose—how and when police departments use license plate data, the public has no way of knowing the full scope of this pervasive technology. 

Yet recent information obtained by In These Times suggests that the use of ALPRs in Chicago, while shrouded in secrecy, is widespread and accelerating.

Last month, Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC)—which purchases equipment for CPD, runs the city’s vast surveillance camera network, and is a frequent partner in surveillance with the police—made a $500,000 agreement with Vigilant Solutions for “license plate recognition software and database management services.” That brief description, found in a monthly summary of the city’s professional services contracts, accounts for the entirety of the publicly available information about the agreement.

The Chicago Police Department (CPD) has also been slow to provide information to In These Times about its use of ALPR. The department has yet to respond to two Freedom of Information Act requests submitted by In These Times on Nov. 25, 2014, seeking documentation of the CPD’s relationship with Vigilant Solutions and other private ALPR firms. The department asked for a one-month extension, but that date has passed. The CPD did respond to a third FOIA request concerning the use of its in-house ALPR program. But the data it provided is difficult to reconcile with previously reported numbers. The CPD Office of News Affairs has ignored multiple requests by In These Times to speak with officials knowledgeable who can clarify the data and shed light on the department’s use of ALPR technology.

Much to be LEARNed

The lack of information about the new Vigilant contract is due to an unusually secretive process. Most OEMC software purchases are approved by the city’s Department of Procurement Services, which posts its contracts in an easily searchable public database. The Vigilant contract, however, was approved by Chicago’s Public Building Commission (PBC), a city agency chaired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose board includes Chicago school board president David Vitale, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and other board-hopping civic leaders.

The PBC’s mission is to oversee the construction and maintenance of buildings. The agency often does not publish the full text of its contracts and, unusually, did not assign the Vigilant agreement a contract number.

A spokesperson for the PBC, Molly Sullivan, told In These Times that the contract had likely not been posted because of “security reasons,” and that to see the text, one would need to make a Freedom of Information Act request. She declined to answer further questions about the specifics of the agreement and the decision to advance the contract through the PBC instead of the Department of Procurement Services.

On February 17, In These Times submitted four new FOIA requests with the PBC, OEMC, and Department of Procurement Services asking for all agreements with Vigilant Solutions and other ALPR companies. (Oddly, the listing for the Vigilant contract on the PBC’s site now says “program wide” where it said “Office of Emergency Management and Communications.” The change occurred since February 17.)

Although the city did not name the license plate recognition software it acquired, the only ALPR software currently offered by Vigilant Solutions is the Law Enforcement Archival and Reporting Network (LEARN). Vigilant’s flagship software allows police to pinpoint the locations of vehicles through searches of the 3 billion records in the NVLS database, as well as location data supplied by a client’s own ALPR cameras. Users can search by location and time, or by license plate number.

Police departments can share data directly with other agencies or upload it to the NVLS for all law enforcement partners to see.

The CPD and the Crime Prevention and Information Center—the Chicago “fusion” center, where federal intelligence agents and state and local law enforcement share information—have apparently been using LEARN since late 2013. A Department Notice dated September 10, 2013 said that Chicago police, under the command of the fusion center, would take part in a LEARN pilot program. A select number of officers would be trained as LEARN operators, while the fusion center would be responsible for managing “any hot list used or created” by CPD officers. (A hot list can include any number of license plates, such as those belonging to stolen vehicles, that, when captured by an ALPR camera, will automatically alert police.)

However, no LEARN-related contracts or agreements are publicly available, and the existence of the program has, until now, gone unreported in the news. That kind of secrecy is not unusual: A LEARN contract obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation prohibits users from doing any publicity around the program without written consent from Vigilant. The provision, Vigilant says, is “specifically intended to prohibit users from cooperating with any media outlet to bring attention to LEARN.”

One of the FOIA requests that In These Times submitted to the CPD in November 2014 asked for the number of officers trained as LEARN operators and records of the fusion center’s audits of the hot lists. CPD has not yet fulfilled the request.

Do the CPD’s numbers add up?

The Chicago Police Department did respond, in part, to In These Times’ request for information about ALPR cameras the CPD owns and operates. However, the response suggests that the department is either wildly underrepresenting the amount of data the cameras collect or not keeping adequate records.

Like many police departments across the country, the CPD mounts ALPR cameras on the roofs of select squad cars, which continuously scan plates while in operation. Integrated with the in-vehicle computer and updated every morning with the latest data from hot lists, these ALPR systems inform officers when the camera picks up the license plate of a wanted vehicle. All of the accrued license plate data—with or without suspicion of criminality—is sent to a department-run database.

The department currently has 25 ALPR-equipped squad cars in service and another five down for repair, according to the CPD’s January 21 response to In These Times’ FOIA request. (Four ALPR units have apparently been junked.)

When the Chicago Sun-Times reported on the launch of the program in May 2006, the department owned just one car and one van equipped with ALPR. By the end of June 2007, according to a 2007 “Technology Update” report prepared by the CPD’s Information Services Division, the fleet had grown to 15, and more than 7 million plates had been scanned, According to an internal CPD document released to the ACLU, by Jan. 5, 2010 the ALPR fleet had grown to “approximately forty” vehicles and had scanned more than 500 million plates.

It comes as some surprise, then, that the CPD’s FOIA response puts the total number of plates scanned at 2.5 million—a 497.5 million drop from five years prior. This does not include records before May 2008, which the department says that it has not maintained, and therefore cannot tally. But that would mean that 99 percent of the 500 million scans occurred between July 2007 and May 2008—and that in 2010, a fleet that had doubled in size was collecting a fraction of the data.

The police department’s FOIA response also gives the impression that even as the ALPR-equipped fleet grew, use of the scanners to find stolen vehicles and make arrests fell abruptly after 2008. The department says that “a manual count” of such records performed in 2013 “revealed that there were 99 incidents in which stolen vehicles were recovered and arrests made with the help of ALPR technology between March 2008 and March 2013.” But in 2007, the Information Services Division cited much higher numbers for the first year of the program, bragging that ALPRs had “resulted in more than 743 recovered stolen vehicles, 15 recovered weapons, 103 associated drug recoveries … [and] led to 371 active arrests” since the start of the program.

The department’s Office of News Affairs declined In These Times’ request to speak with an official about these discrepancies, and did not respond to follow-up questions.

Selling license-plate data to police: a booming business

As the costs of manufacturing cameras and storing enormous amounts of data continue to fall, the use of ALPRs has proliferated in the 21st century. In the past decade, they have become a ubiquitous tool for law enforcement agencies and private industries across the country—stoking worries among privacy advocates about large amounts of personal data stored with few protections.

Earlier this year, documents released to the ACLU and additional reporting by the Wall Street Journal revealed that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) had created its own ALPR network and database, accessible to law enforcement agencies across the country. That the DEA’s ALPR cameras can also capture passengers’ faces heightened the concerns of civil liberty groups.

Vigilant Solution’s NVLS database grew from 1 billion records in 2013 to more than 3 billion today—an average of 12 license-plate scans for each of the 253 million vehicles in the United States—and adds more than 70 million new scans every month. Vigilant says its LEARN software, specifically designed for law enforcement, is used by more than 2,200 agencies across the country. And Vigilant is just one of many companies jockeying for dominance in the ever-growing industry.

Valued at $415.5 million in 2013, the global ALPR industry is expected to reach $1 billion by 2020, according to market analysis firm Transparency Market Research. Several private database and software system providers, including MVTRAC, ELSAG, and others, also collect and share location data. These companies market ALPRs and their attendant data not only to law enforcement, but to any company or government agency interested in tracking vehicles: repossession businesses, departments of revenue, insurance and financial services firms, toll booth and parking lot operators, private security and detective services, and more.

However, there are no federal laws regulating law enforcement use of ALPRs or restricting access to databases. Illinois, like 39 other states, does not have any state-imposed regulations. And, according to the ACLU, police departments are loathe to create any internal policies that would restrict their ALPR programs. How widely ALPR data is shared between police departments, federal agencies and the private databases that sell that information to anyone willing to pay, is unknown.

Vigilant Solutions says that each client’s preferences, policies and applicable laws limit how its data are stored and shared. Meanwhile, the company fights regulations proposed in state legislatures, including efforts in Arkansas, Minnesota, Utah, and Vermont.

In its response to In These Times’ FOIA request, the CPD said it “has not shared ALPR data with any other outside law enforcement or intelligence agencies.” But that begs the question of why CPD’s use of Vigilant’s LEARN software is under the command of the fusion center—whose explicit mission is information-sharing among law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

In These Times will continue to push CPD to provide responses to eight unfulfilled FOIA requests from November 2014 regarding police use of a number of surveillance technologies, including ALPR—plus the four follow-up requests regarding ALPR—and to give a clear explanation of the conflicting ALPR numbers.

This investigation is funded by the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting.

Joel Handley, a former assistant editor at In These Times, is a Chicago-based independent journalist and freelance editor.

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