For the past week, the Los Angeles City Council has been in the national spotlight thanks to a controversial plan to scare people away from its de facto red light district. City officials say a San Fernando Valley neighborhood has a "longstanding, prolific problem with prostitution." Among the ideas to eradicate the ladies of the night are adding more street lights, trimming back the shrubbery and recording the license plates of cars that linger there in order to send letters to the drivers' homes saying they were spotted in an area with sex workers and warning them about STDs.
It's that last idea—that someone could be tracked and presumed suspicious for being in the "wrong" part of town—that has the world in a tizzy. "The age of 'pre-crime' has arrived," declared Radley Balko in the Washington Post. "Los Angeles just proposed the worst use of license plate reader data in history," wrote police software CEO Nick Selby in Medium.
It's no longer just a proposal. The "John letters motion" was approved by the city council on Monday and LAPD officers can presumably start recording license plate numbers and sending letters to the registered owners' homes immediately. But the media got one thing wrong: there's no plan to use automated license plate readers to scan every license plate that goes through the neighborhood to shoot the drivers scarlet letters. And the age of pre-crime had already arrived: Los Angeles is not the only city to have this idea. Oakland, St. Louis, and Sanford are among those who got there first.
The paranoia about overreaching government surveillance and how technology is being used to police us is at a fever pitch right now. That may explain why the media quickly seized on the erroneous idea that license plate readers would be used to automatically send incriminating letters to the homes (and loved ones) of anyone who drove through this part of town. There are crazy uses of technology to prevent sex work, after all, such as this guy who is using a drone to out alleged prostitutes.
But even without the Orwellian license plate reader element, there are legitimate concerns around guilt premised on an idling car. The fierce opposition to the plan may be best represented by a citizen who attended a public safety committee meeting on Nov. 17, during which the motion, years in coming, was discussed at length. In an audio recording of the meeting, committee chairperson Mitchell Englander introduces "Wayne," who, Englander explains, is there to "waste our time." After Wayne is given the floor for five minutes to discuss his concerns, he sarcastically suggests that the plan not be limited to areas of prostitution but that the city also send letters to the homes of white drivers seen in "high-density black areas" so that their parents or spouse will know they were buying drugs—um, Wayne, this is an offensive example, for the record—and to cars that drive through areas known for gambling.
"That way, registered owners will know the city is watching your every move and notifying you of it," said Wayne, who then went into IRL Internet commenter mode. "If Hitler were here, he would applaud you today. [This proposal] is fucking fascism on steroids. How the hell can you take the fact that a license plate on a car is in a certain area to justify the government sending a letter accusing that person of being a John?"
"Welcome to the First Amendment," said Englander to the gathered attendees, noting Wayne's right to free speech. His response to Wayne was, "You can go now."
In further discussions of the proposal, its author, Councilmember Nury Martinez, suggested that only people who lingered or showed interest in soliciting would get letters—not anyone who drove through. "It's not going to the pizza [delivery] guy in the area," she said. "Unless you're soliciting, you're not to get one of these letters," said her spokesperson Adam Bass in a phone call. There's no mention of automated license plate readers in any official documentation, though they were included as the method of collection in a CBS news report. A spokesperson for the LA City Attorney Office called that "a mistake."
The LAPD hasn't yet responded to a comment about exactly how the letter-sending process will work, though a representative at the meeting said people would get letters when there was "probable cause" to send them, not just reasonable suspicioun. Still, it means that people may end up on a list of potential Johns just because an officer saw someone using their car trying to get lucky. (Note to Los Angelenos: don't let your friend borrow your car if they have a history of being that kind of dude.)
Martinez described the girls and women being solicited in the area as victims of human trafficking, including minors forced into sex work against their will. Officials said they'd prefer to crack down on "pimps" and Johns rather than on victims—which is an understandable sentiment, even if you don't agree with their tactics.
"Whether it comes to letters or publicizing their names in the local newspaper or on the Internet or impounding their cars and they have to explain why they came home without a car, I hope that adds to the uncomfortable explanation you have to give your partner or spouse about why you were in this prostitution area," Martinez said during the meeting.
But how well do "John" letters actually work? LA is not the first city to give this a try. Further north, for example, in the Bay Area, Oakland launched a program in 2012 in which community members in an area known for sex work can file reports with the license plate numbers of 'Johns' spotted in their areas. The police department will then send the registered owner of that plate a nasty letter. In the first 9 months of that program, the po-po sent 18 letters. Via KALW:
“Some of those letters went to businesses like an extermination company. One letter belonged to a garbage truck that originated in West Oakland. One belonged to an electrical company,” Captain Davis reports.
I can imagine other reasons beyond picking up a sex worker that might occasion a pest control employee, garbageman, and electrician to linger in the neighborhood for an extended period of time, but perhaps I am too naive.
Balko points out in the Washington Post that a program like this creates added stigma for an area.
It’s essentially stating that there are some neighborhoods where a person’s mere presence is indicative of criminal activity — that the only reason one would visit these areas is to solicit sex for money. Think about what that says to the people who live and work in those areas. It’s also a pretty surefire way to prevent these neighborhoods from ever improving. Why would anyone travel to or through an area designated a “prostitution zone” to, say, offer job training, counseling, medical care or other services if doing so means their name winds up in a database of suspected johns?
And that database of suspected johns becomes a matter of public record. Last year, someone requested a copy of every John Letter sent out by Oakland's police department. "We released all of the requested documents. Records were sent directly to personal email," notes the Oakland PD. The record requester sounded sympathetic to the plight of letter recipients, but someone else, who might want to shame or blackmail them, could make the same request, as we've seen this happen with mug shots, with for-profit sites getting them through public information requests, putting them online, and then extorting people to have them removed.
Woodrow Hartzog, an academic who focuses on privacy at Samford Law School, says his main concerns about these types of plans are false positives, "guilt by association," and how the data might later get re-shared or misused,such as with the public records request above. "I also have concerns about the ethics and utility of shaming in this context," Hartzog said by email.
Though the plan doesn't involve license plate readers now, it's entirely plausible that the next city that wants to launch a John letter program could, given the way law enforcement is embracing the technology. And the widespread, erroneous reporting that LA is using automated license plate readers may well pave the way for another city to do it.
"License plate readers are an order of magnitude more effective and efficient than human observation and analysis," said Hartzog. "[They're] cheap, tireless, and have perfect recall. We have not adjusted our expectations of privacy in our whereabouts to accommodate for these kinds of technologies, nor should we. The ability to remain relatively obscure to most people as we move about in public is essential to human flourishing. License plate readers threaten that obscurity."
Before Wayne was shut down in the committee hearing, he warned the council members they were making a terrible mistake. "You are presuming criminal activity based on a car being in a certain time and place," he said. "Your asses are going to be slapped with a lawsuit and should."
A deputy city attorney at the meeting said his office had reviewed the plan and that "there is potential risk [of the city being sued] but we are confident the risk is low."
Risk of public backlash, on the other hand, is high.