Nury Martinez, Prostitution & Bad Technology
Nov. 30, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Los Angeles City Councilwoman Nury Martinez thinks prostitution is a Very Bad Thing and that people should refrain from soliciting sex in her district. Fortunately, she’s got a solution that would pass the endorsement of Super Grover 2.0: unleash the Power of Technology!
Los Angeles is considering sending “Dear John” letters to the homes of men who solicit prostitutes hoping the mail will be opened by mothers, girlfriends or wives.
Privacy advocates are slamming the idea. The plan would use automated license plate readers to generate the letters, which would be aimed at shaming “Johns,” the Los Angeles Daily News reported.
Automated License Plate Readers (or ALPRs), are a widely used law enforcement mass surveillance tool. Mounted onto police cars or fixed to bridges, they use high speed cameras to take thousands of photographs of license plates. The date, time, and location of each plate scan is recorded by the scanner, and often uploaded into a database for later use. Police justify the use of these devices by saying they ease the work in locating stolen vehicles and finding vehicles used by those who committed a crime. Privacy advocates note other concerns with ALPRs that reach past those laudable goals.
[Most] ALPR systems collect and store data on every car (i.e. they don’t distinguish between suspects and innocent civilians). Even if a vehicle isn’t involved in a crime, data on where it was and when may be stored for many years, just in case the vehicle later comes under suspicion…Depending on how much data has been collected, this information in aggregate can reveal all sorts of personal information, including what doctors you visit, what protests you attend, and where you work, shop, worship, and sleep at night. (emphasis added.)
I bolded the above statement because that’s where Councilwoman Martinez’s plan goes past the realm of combating prostitution and falls head first into a spiral of lunacy that could cost Los Angeles millions of dollars in civil suits. Vehicles, and the people who drive them, may have perfectly legal reasons to be in her San Fernando Valley district. Technology doesn’t distinguish between those soliciting groceries and soliciting sex, so all the data will be aggregated and letters potentially sent to someone’s home who just happened to be in the neighborhood to pick up a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread.
Councilwoman Martinez doesn’t seem to think this is a problem, as evidenced by a statement she gave to the media.
If you aren’t soliciting, you have no reason to worry about finding one of these letters in your mailbox. But if you are, these letters will discourage you from returning. Soliciting for sex in our neighborhoods is not OK.
The great part about Councilwoman Martinez’s scheme is that law enforcement officials themselves are already calling bullshit on the measure. Nick Selby, a Texas cop and CEO of a company called “Streetcred Software,” explained at Medium why Martinez’s plan dovetails with H.L. Mencken’s quote, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
Have Ms. Martinez and the Los Angeles City Council taken leave of their senses? This scheme makes, literally, a state issue out of legal travel to arbitrary places deemed by some — but not by a court, and without due process — to be “related” to crime in general, not to any specific crime.
There isn’t “potential” for abuse here, this is a legislated abuse of technology that is already controversial when it’s used by police for the purpose of seeking stolen vehicles, tracking down fugitives and solving specific crimes.
Selby goes on to detail the difference between actual police work versus the blanket use of technology to shame someone for being in an area. If an officer had reasonable suspicion someone was in an area to solicit sex, they could get out of their car, investigate, and take action accordingly. Of course, that takes time and the use of actual brainpower, so Councilwoman Martinez’s plan is to simply “automate the process of reasonable suspicion” on a blanket scale. It’s almost as if Martinez doesn’t believe Los Angeles Police Officers have the ability to do their jobs.
The City Council voted on November 25 to have the City Attorney’s Office “analyze” Councilwoman Martinez’s proposal. This is most likely a polite way of saying “take a look and see if we could possibly get sued over doing something like this.” It wouldn’t be the first time a Los Angeles government agency has been sued over ALPR technology. The Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the LAPD back in 2013 over the legality of the mass data collection by police ALPRs.
This time, though, the lawsuits wouldn’t be coming from oversight groups. Martinez’s plan opens the door for the City of Los Angeles to face multiple civil suits ranging from individuals whose relationships are ruined over merely being in an area to businesses that face a drop in revenue because no one wants to shop in a neighborhood where they will automatically be pegged as someone seeking to pay for sex.
Selby pegs another issue with Martinez’s plan that the good Councilwoman didn’t think of when suggesting this bold measure. These records will be committed to paper and subject to Freedom of Information laws. Once that happens, anyone can get their hands on the data by simply requesting “all John letters sent in a certain date range.” What happens at that point?
Far from serving as, in the words of one proponent, a private “wake-up call,” these letters will surely be the basis of insurance, medical, employment and other decisions, and such a list can be re-sold to public records companies, advertising mailing list companies…
Regardless of one’s personal views on prostitution or sex trafficking, there are still ways to combat criminal activity without massively implicating groups of people who just happened to be in the right place at the wrong time. It’s happened long before ALPRs were implemented, and long before places started using “Dear John” letters to discourage prostitution.
Councilwoman Martinez might want to rethink her boneheaded proposal before the City of Los Angeles begins opening up its checkbook due to mass litigation.