Individuals and Businesses Can Get Your Information from the Government
Stalking is a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reason person to feel fear… Some things stalkers do:
- Monitor your phone calls or computer use…
- Find out about use by using public records or online search services…
- Posting information or spreading rumor about you on the internet, in a public place, or by word of mouth…
Even if a police department or government agency has strong privacy rules in place to protect the surveillance records and personal data it stores, your private information is still vulnerable. That’s because surveillance data is often available to all as a public record.
While police usually keep surveillance on the targets of an investigation closely guarded, typically they must provide the data collected by indiscriminate surveillance tools (like public cameras, aerial cameras, and ALPRs) to anyone who requests it. Public records laws are valuable. They protect the public by exposing mistakes and abuses, detailing how the government spends our tax dollars, and providing an incentive to keep public servants honest. But when an agency stores surveillance footage and troves of personal data indefinitely, your private information becomes vulnerable to stalkers, identity thieves, work rivals, curious neighbors, divorce lawyers – anyone who can write and stamp a letter. A business owner might use ALPR data to track the movements of his competitors or employees. Extremist activists might use surveillance camera footage or cell phone location data to identify people who visit a reproductive clinic, attend a gun show, or participate in a demonstration.
Moreover, the Electronic Privacy Information Center notes that “information from public records is being sold by private companies … back to the government for law enforcement purposes.” This isn’t just a questionable use of public resources. The records that police purchase from private companies often contain credit and consumer information collected from other sources. When the government purchases your data from private companies, it may become disclosable as well. As petty criminals, stalkers, and voyeurs become more sophisticated, so should our government’s privacy policies.
Public disclosure laws should enable citizens to keep an eye on their government – not to keep an eye on other citizens.
Examples of Use
Location::Minneapolis, MNProtecting Location Data
When privacy advocates asked Mayor R.T. Ryback of Minneapolis to review the police department’s use of automatic license plate reader data, he initially met their concerns with skepticism. After all, the ALPRs installed in patrol cars and affixed to traffic signals at major intersections could be a huge help in identifying stolen vehicles and pinpointing cars associated with an Amber Alert. In any case, how much could that data actually reveal? As it turns out, ALPR data can reveal quite a lot – and it can reveal quite a lot to anyone who asks. Local journalists submitted a public records request on MPD license plate data for the mayor’s car, which turned up 41 scans. It showed a detailed pattern of movement, with scans concentrated around his home, office, and other places he visited frequently. Presented with this information, Mayor Ryback immediately asked the City Attorney to draft a new policy to shorten data retention periods and limit disclosures of this sensitive location information to the public. In a statement announcing the policy, Mayor Ryback laid out the dangers of ALPR data.
“If this data remains public:
- Victims of domestic violence may be placed at risk because their abuser can request data to try to determine where the victim may be living or working,
- Criminals may be able to determine the home address of a person driving the vehicle and could determine when a home may be vacant,
- Disabled individuals may be at risk as criminal could target these vulnerable people, learning their patterns of movement and where they live.”
The City of Minneapolis lobbied the Minnesota state legislature to adopt privacy regulations statewide. Unfortunately, ALPR data is just the tip of a very dangerous iceberg. Communities considering the purchase of new surveillance equipment for law enforcement should always consider the possibility that it could be turned into a tool for lawbreakers.
When government agencies consider acquiring and using surveillance systems, communities and their elected officials must both weigh the benefits against the costs to civil liberties and carefully craft policies and procedures that help to limit the negative effects that surveillance will have on fundamental rights. For a useful list of considerations, please visit the recommendations page.