Reno police expand automatic license plate surveillance

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Reno police are expanding the use of technology to automatically read license plates in an effort to reduce gun violence.

The Reno City Council approved the expanded use of devices and associated software to track license plates despite critics' concerns it could be used to secretly monitor the movement of law-abiding citizens, according to the Reno Gazette Journal.

“We want our dangerous criminals off the streets, and that is what this grant is focused on,” Police Chief Jason Soto told the council. “We are trying to reduce violent gun crimes in the city of Reno.”

A visiting professor at the University of Nevada, Reno who specializes in mass surveillance technology was among those raising concerns about the potential for abuse.

“Your neighbors would find that really creepy if you were sitting down writing down everyone’s comings and goings,” said David Maass, who recently joined UNR's Reynolds School of Journalism through a partnership with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “You are tracking people who have no involvement in a crime whatsoever.”

He said he also was troubled by the fact the city council's approval of the expansion was considered as part of its consent agenda typically reserved for non-controversial items that aren’t expected to generate debate.

“Maybe they should have done more fact-finding before unanimously approving a very, very invasive technology,” Maass said.

Maass said the city has provided conflicting explanations of how the information is shared.

On Tuesday, spokesmen for the city and police department told the newspaper that information from existing license plate readers and the new ones isn’t shared with federal agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, nor would it be.

But on Wednesday, Soto acknowledged instances of routine data sharing after Maass shared on Twitter public documents he and his journalism students acquired months ago showing the city does provide many agencies, including ICE, license plate data from Reno.

“I don’t know how they could with a straight face make that claim knowing this document has been released,” Maass said. “They were caught misleading the city council, and the city council didn’t seem particularly alarmed by that.”

Concerns about data sharing with ICE are important to preventing crime in immigrant communities. Immigrants, who are more likely than citizens to be victims of crime, can be wary of reporting crimes if they are worried it could lead to conflict with federal officials over immigration status.

Soto said Reno police are sensitive to the problem and aren’t interested in residents’ immigration status. He said he wouldn’t approve data sharing unless it was aimed at reducing violent crime.

“If we do a traffic stop, we are not asking what is your immigration status,” Soto said.

While Soto said he maintains control over who accesses stored license plate reader data, the private company that provides the technology has been the subject of multiple journalistic investigations that uncovered examples of agencies such as ICE buying unfettered access to information collected by local law enforcement.

A March 2019 investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union into practices by the company, Vigilant Solutions, showed “data that is collected by local and state law enforcement agencies across the country who are already Vigilant customers … could provide hundreds of millions more (license plate) scans available for ICE to search.”

The item the council approved unanimously Wednesday allows the police department to use federal grant money to spend up to $117,000 to buy six fixed and two mobile license plate readers.

Council members spoke approvingly of the plan and Soto’s assurances it would be used responsibly before voting unanimously to approve the spending.

“Ultimately you are the gatekeeper,” Councilman Oscar Delgado told Soto. “I trust in that. I think that is what I needed to hear from you.”