Privacy vs. finding stolen cars: Seattle considers expanding license plate readers

May 15, 2024, 8:30 AM | Updated: 10:00 am

Photo: SPD is looking to expand its license plate technology....

SPD is looking to expand its license plate technology. (Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

(Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

The Seattle Police Department (SPD) aims to dramatically expand the use of license plate readers to all 360 of its vehicles in an effort to combat the dramatic increase in stolen cars. Currently, only 11 police cruisers have the technology. Motor vehicle theft has increased citywide by 33% from 2022 to 2023, rising from 6,934 to 9,189 incidents, according to SPD.

However, the request is raising privacy concerns about how the information collected can be accessed by the public and used in investigations of other crimes. The Seattle City Council’s (SCC) Public Safety Committee heard the request by SPD on Tuesday but will not take any action until SPD returns and addresses privacy concerns raised by council members.

Seattle Police are asking the council for $280,000 and approval to expand Automated License Plate Reader (ALPR) technology to the entire fleet, which includes its 270 cruisers, six police boats and other non-cruiser vehicles.

If approved, the initiative would mark a significant shift in surveillance practices within the city.

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The expansion would utilize high-definition in-vehicle video cameras, also known as “dashcams,” to continuously scan and analyze license plates within their view. Currently, SPD uses ALPR to recover lost or stolen cars, enforce parking, issue Amber and Silver Alerts and aid in other active investigations involving missing persons.

The SCC approved the initial ALPR program in 2021, limiting it to only 11 police vehicles. One of the vehicles was demonstrated by Seattle Police Captain John Britt, who told the council that the system works.

Seattle police captain recovers dozens of stolen cars with ALPR tech

“While I am not an officer out on routine patrol, in those two years, I have recovered about 24 stolen vehicles, just myself. And that includes driving to and from work, heading out to grab lunch, or attending other meetings,” Britt said.

Software deciphers the plate number and then instantly cross-references license plate numbers against databases including the Washington Crime Information Center, the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, and SPD’s internal investigations.

If a match is found, the patrol officer must verify license plate accuracy and confirm with dispatch before any action may be taken, according to a presentation made by SPD to the council. But Britt told the council the technology cannot read the state represented by the plate.

“The technology has not yet advanced to the point where it can distinguish between different states. So, it’s only reading the characters on the license plate itself. So that human in the loop aspect is critically important to that,” Britt said.

Supporters highlight the expansion’s potential to enhance public safety and police accountability but others, including several council members, expressed concerns about the expansion’s impact on civil liberties, particularly among historically marginalized communities.

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Stakeholders worry about misuse of license plate tech

During the public comment period, which concluded in late 2023, various stakeholders expressed apprehensions about increased surveillance, data retention periods and potential misuse of ALPR data by government agencies.

Former King County Superior Court Judge and now freshman council member Cathy Moore said she had deep concerns about the 90-day retention policy of all information collected and residing on a third-party service provider, which is part of SPD’s plan.

“We are now opening the door to public records requests from people potentially placing domestic violence victims at risk, that would potentially increase stalking, harassment, people who are being targeted because of their immigration status, their ethnicity, their religious identity, as well as reproductive care,” Moore said.  “I am very uncomfortable voting on this until we have addressed the retention issues under the Public Records Act.”

As the SCC deliberates on CB 120778, an ongoing review by Council Central Staff aims to identify specific policy options. The committee is slated for a second hearing on May 28, 2024, where further amendments may be considered.

Matt Markovich is an analyst and reporter who often covers the state legislature and public policy for KIRO Newsradio. You can read more of Matt’s stories here. Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email him here.

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Privacy vs. finding stolen cars: Seattle considers expanding license plate readers