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Technology turns our cities into spies for ICE, whether we like it or not

Technology turns our cities into spies for ICE, whether we like it or not
License plate reading cameras mounted on the back of a Connecticut State Police cruiser in Hartford, Conn. (Dave Collins / Associated Press)

As I write these words, there are more than 30 Oakland Police Department patrol cars roaming the city with license plate readers, specialized cameras that can scan and record up to 60 license plates per second. Meanwhile, the Alameda County Sheriff's Office maintains a fleet of six drones to monitor crime scenes when it sees fit. The Alameda County district attorney's office owns a StingRay, a device that acts as a fake cell tower and forces phones to give up their location. And that's just in one little corner of California.

Just as consumer electronics continually get faster, cheaper, smaller, and more sophisticated, so too do the tools law enforcement uses to spy on us. What once demanded significant money and manpower can be accomplished easily by machine. This advanced technology is hurtling toward us so fast that privacy laws can't keep up.

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Today, patrol officers in many U.S. cities, including where I live in Oakland, wear small video cameras that capture endless hours of video. In the not-too-distant future, those same cameras will have facial recognition capabilities, like the kind that recently enabled police in China to pinpoint a suspect in a crowd of 60,000 people at a pop concert.

Much of this gear is acquired by cities and counties through federal grants. Often, well-intentioned police chiefs and other officials come before city councils or county supervisors with some anodyne request to approve a chunk of free money in the name of fighting terrorism. Lawmakers may have little idea what exactly they're approving and usually don't ask how that gear is going to be put to use.

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Case in point: In September 2012, the San Leandro City Council first discovered that its own Police Department had license plate readers — five years after they'd been deployed. Who enlightened them? Not the police chief. Instead, a local privacy activist, Mike Katz-Lacabe, looked into the matter. He filed a public records request to get police images of his own car — more than 100 in all, taken over two years — then told a reporter from the Wall Street Journal about it. It made the front page.

Still, how broadly cities have deployed such surveillance technologies has gone largely unnoticed, even by informed policymakers and citizens. But that is starting to change, thanks, in part, to President Trump.

Six months ago, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 54, also known as the "sanctuary state" law. The law forbids state or local law enforcement agencies from investigating a person's immigration status and limits how they cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Since then, a few conservative communities have joined a lawsuit contesting the law. And a few cities that embrace sanctuary status have woken up to the fact that their crime-fighting technology is at odds with their progressive values.

Turns out, the same license plate readers, or LPRs, that locate stolen or wanted cars can also be used to find cars belonging to immigrants here illegally.

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LPRs capture the plate number and automatically record the date, time, and precise GPS location where it was seen. Police will say that this isn't true surveillance; it is merely a discrete snapshot in time. Given enough data, however, patterns can easily be discerned. Does a person go to work at a certain hour? Come home at a particular time? Head out of town on Fridays or go to church on Sundays? LPRs never sleep.

Most cities don't just keep this data to themselves. Rather they share it with their regional "fusion centers" of which there are 77 across the country. These are federally funded clearinghouses for information about crime and public safety threats.

In addition, there are private companies that are assembling huge databases based on surveillance technology like LPRs and facial recognition. Vigilant Solutions, based in Livermore, Calif., is one of the largest with a nationwide multibillion-record LPR database. Vigilant happily offers access to law enforcement agencies that share their own data. "Joining the largest law enforcement LPR sharing networking is as easy as adding a friend on your favorite social media platform," Vigilant boasts on its website. As of December, Vigilant has a new client: Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

So even though the San Francisco Police Department, for example, is forbidden to target immigrants who are undocumented under city and state sanctuary laws, ICE agents can simply log in to Vigilant or a fusion center database and effectively turn the SFPD's cameras into snitches for ICE.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other like-minded groups have been pushing cities to adopt pro-privacy laws that would rein in the deployment of surveillance technology since before the 2016 election. These efforts have taken on a new urgency since Trump's hostility to immigrants became federal policy. In March, Davis and Berkeley passed ordinances requiring more transparency, oversight and accountability from local law enforcement — including an annual public report on how the technology is used, its cost, and its effect on crime solving. Palo Alto, Oakland and other cities are also weighing such policies.

In 1862, California became the first state in the union to formally outlaw the tapping of telegraph lines. Over a century later in 1972, we added privacy to the list of inalienable rights in the opening lines of the state Constitution. It is only fitting, then, that California should now spur a new movement in the name of protecting our privacy rights.

Cyrus Farivar is the author of "Habeas Data: Privacy vs. the Rise of Surveillance Tech," which comes out this month. He is a senior technology policy reporter at Ars Technica.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion and Facebook

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