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NEW: Fairfax County police to expand use of automated license plate readers this spring

Flock Safety ALPR camera system (courtesy Flock Safety)

The Fairfax County Police Department (FCPD) is expanding the use of automated license plate reader technology across the county, despite concerns from civil rights groups.

The department will install 25 automated license plate readers (ALPRs) around Fairfax County by the spring, FCPD spokesperson Sergeant Hudson Bull confirmed to FFXnow.

This expansion of the program comes after an eight-week “test period,” where the camera system was placed in two locations and assisted in “over 35 cases which have led to over 60 arrest charges,” Bull said.

Based on that data, the trial period has now been extended an additional 10 months to Oct. 31, 2023.

Over the next nine months, cameras will watch more than two dozen “high-crime” areas in the county.

“The camera placement is based on data showing where most stolen vehicles are recovered and where most crime occurs that we believe these cameras could assist us in solving,” Bull said.

The camera system comes from Flock Safety, which has installed ALPRs in more than 2,000 localities across the country.

The ALPR cameras capture license plates, vehicle color, make and model, and send a “real-time alert” to law enforcement when a stolen car or a vehicle used in a crime is detected within a database.

During the initial trial period in November and December, FCPD says the system helped it recover six stolen cars worth an estimated $350,000. In one car, fentanyl and methamphetamines were found, and another had more than five pounds of marijuana, police say.

The system also helped police locate two missing persons when the cameras detected vehicles associated with those cases.

“Two persons were quickly located by officers and safely returned home after alerts were sent,” Bull wrote. “The officers can also search the cameras in cases when a person has been missing for several hours but there is a delay in reporting.”

While Flock Safety and FCPD tout ALPRs as crime prevention and solving tools, local civil rights groups have a number of ethical and privacy concerns about the county expanding the program.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia (ACLU-VA) said it wasn’t aware of the program’s expansion prior to being contacted by FFXnow.

“The ACLU is always concerned about the efforts to expand mass surveillance,” ACLU-VA senior staff attorney Matt Callahan told FFXnow. “We consider the privacy of individuals and their freedom of movement to be a core value of society.”

He noted that the organization believes decisions to use ALPRs and other tracking or surveillance technology should be “in the public’s hands” and not solely left to law enforcement or individual vendors like Flock.

“What we often see is that the public doesn’t favor the kind of widespread expansion of surveillance technology for law enforcement,” Callahan said. “At a minimum, they ask for additional privacy safeguards, like individual audits by outside agencies to make sure that the information is not being misused.”

Flock Safety noted that the cameras “capture license plates and vehicle characteristics, not people or faces,” and “are not intended for minor traffic or parking violations.”

Data retention has also been a source of debate in the county and Virginia for a number of years.

A Fairfax County judge ruled in 2019 that maintaining a database of photos of vehicle license plates violated Virginia privacy law. A year later, the Virginia State Supreme Court overturned that decision, saying police could keep this data indefinitely.

In 2021, a bill proposed in the State Senate would have limited the storing of data collected by ALPRs to 30 days if there’s no warrant or ongoing investigation. That bill failed, but a similar one is currently being considered in the General Assembly.

The FCPD confirmed that it can collect and store license plate data for up to one year, but Flock Safety’s system only stores data for 30 days.

“Because the storage of LPR data is provided in the initial cost of the Flock Safety system, the FCPD will only keep the data for 30 days…collected by the Flock cameras,” Bull said.

While storing data for a month is less problematic than a whole year, Callahan says it still brings up plenty of worries when it comes to privacy.

“It still lets law enforcement go back and map out travel patterns of people who come under suspicion later. They can basically reconstruct where someone’s been a month at a time,” he said. “That’s…different than merely checking if a stolen car is in a specific place at a specific time.”

Bull said FCPD has heard these concerns, particularly from the NAACP’s Fairfax County branch, and has “directly responded” by ensuring data is used only for “law enforcement purposes.” The department is keeping records of each officer’s use of the system.

There’s an auditing feature as well “supervised by administrators of the system,” and in accordance with the county’s Trust Policy, FCPD has “opted out” of gathering information regarding “immigration status violations,” Bull said.

Despite those promises, the Virginia ACLU remains concerned.

“A license plate is enough often to link that to a person’s identity. The whole point of this technology is to use that information to figure out who was traveling where and when they are in a specific place,” Callahan said. “This information has significant implications for the privacy of individuals who use Virginia’s roads and highways.”

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