There are currently 2,731,429 pictures of unsuspecting citizens’ cars collected in a Fairfax County, Virginia database, and yet the county has no way of figuring out how useful that database is according to the letter Lieutenant David White sent in response to my latest Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
The people whose cars are being watched are not necessarily suspected of committing any crime. They aren’t necessarily involved in any particular investigation. There is no warrant out for their arrest, nor one specifically authorizing surveillance of their car. They are being tracked nonetheless.
I say tracked because each of those 2,731,429 pictures, obtained by a system of automatic license plate readers (ALPRs), has a latitude and longitude value attached to it so police can determine exactly where they were taken. They also have a timestamp so police can know exactly when they were taken.
In theory, this means police can identify where someone they do suspect of committing a crime has been and even who they might have been with. In practice, this means police are keeping records of the comings and goings of a massive number of average citizens without their knowledge or consent.
In addition to all of that the police department apparently “does not possess any” metric “to determine the [ALPRs] system’s effectiveness.” In other words, they don’t really know how well the system actually works. Is the information gathered by ALPRs worth tracking the law-abiding en masse? The department apparently has no way of knowing.
Now, my car is not in any of the 2.7 million pictures Fairfax County currently has but, as I explained in a recent report, the city of Alexandria, Virginia does have records of visits I made to my girlfriend’s apartment.
Additionally, just because Fairfax County doesn’t currently have records on my travels doesn’t mean there couldn’t have been pictures of my car at some point before the current year-long window the database operates within. The county may also have new pictures of my car which were taken after my FOIA was fulfilled. Other than continually filing FOIA requests there really isn’t any way for me, or anybody else for that matter, to know if and when the police are keeping tabs on our travels.
However, neither FOIA request I’ve made with the two police departments has returned any record of incidents I actually want them to keep track of.
The fight between a homeless couple at a Subway near the border of Alexandria and Fairfax County that I was forced to break up after a steel chair became involved is absent from either jurisdiction’s records. The time a coworker and I saw two homeless men drag a homeless woman across an Applebee’s parking lot in the same area isn’t there either. The time a homeless person came to my third floor apartment–and only my apartment for some reason–while my girlfriend was visiting doesn’t show up either.The police were called in each of those situations and they even responded to all of them–well, except for the WWE-style throw down which police didn’t bother to show up for.
Why are there no records of them but there are millions of pictures of everyday people’s travels? The police officials I spoke with couldn’t provide a definitive answer.
There’s no definitive answers to a lot of questions raised by this type of mass surveillance. Why does Fairfax County have 2.7 million records of where average citizens travel but no records of situations that police have traditionally been involved with? If there’s no metric for determining the effectiveness of the mass surveillance system then how does the county know if it’s useful at all? If the county doesn’t know whether or not it’s useful then how can anybody determine whether or not the benefits of the system outweigh concerns which crop up anytime police watch the law-abiding without specific cause?