One morning last week, 38-year-old software developer Phil Mocek was walking to work in Seattle when he paused to photograph what appeared to be civilian vehicles parked in a restricted area near a downtown federal building. He snapped a few pictures and began walking away, when a white truck whipped out of one of the parking spots and pulled up perpendicular to the curb. A large man wearing jeans and a gray T-shirt emerged from the cab and angrily grabbed the camera from Mocek, who hollered for help and fumbled with his phone to dial 911.
Police quickly arrived on the scene, responding to Mocek’s report of a possible robbery. The black male suspect identified himself as an agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and told the officers that he was concerned about Mocek posting images of his vehicle online due to the nature of his job. The ATF agent explained that he had confiscated the camera and examined its contents because he “wanted to delete the picture that was taken of him.” Nobody was arrested.
For Mocek, the encounter was both unsettling and absurd. A gadfly for government transparency and police accountability, he has a history of prodding law enforcement to the point of exasperation. He says he was taking the pictures for an ongoing project that aims to raise awareness about law enforcement tracking vehicles on U.S. city streets and highways. The fact that a federal agent was concerned about Mocek violating his privacy rights would have been laughable if it weren’t so frightening.
“He was much, much larger than me and very intimidating,” Mocek said, describing the ATF agent, who is not named in the Seattle police report. “This huge man just jumped out of a car and grabbed my camera from me. It made me very uncomfortable.”
An ATF spokesman said the agency is aware of the incident involving Mocek but declined to comment further.
This is not the first time Mocek has tangled with federal agents. Short, with a dark beard and thick, round glasses, Mocek earned the nickname “the TSA’s worst nightmare” in 2011 for declining to show ID when boarding a domestic flight and then recording the fallout on his cellphone camera. (The ensuing misdemeanor charges were eventually dismissed.)
Mocek says he has been taking pictures of the Seattle federal building and the vehicles parked outside “two or three days a week for the past few weeks.” He is using the images to make a record of license plate numbers, which he plans to eventually publish in order to draw attention to police use of automatic license plate readers, or ALPRs. These small devices are mounted on police cruisers or objects like road signs and bridges. They use high-speed cameras to photograph and catalog thousands of license plates per minute.
According to a recent ACLU report titled “You Are Being Tracked,” 600 local and state police departments, along with federal agencies, are using ALPRs to create “enormous databases of innocent motorists’ location information.” Some of the data, including the license plate number, date, time and location of every scan, is stored indefinitely “with few or no restrictions to protect privacy rights.”
“There’s no regulations right now requiring agencies to delete these records at any time,” said Jamela Debelak, technology and liberty director for the ACLU of Washington state. “A wide variety of law enforcement agencies are doing this. They are storing this information indefinitely, which would allow them to go back and put a picture together years later of an individual’s movements.”
In Seattle, the ACLU obtained via public records request a police database that includes more than 7.3 million license plate scans. Of those, just 7,244, or .1 percent, were flagged as “hits” for stolen vehicles or other illegal activity. The remaining records, as Debelak notes in an ACLU blog post, “provide a handy means for anyone who wishes to track others.”
“We could identify, for instance, when an officer takes his patrol car home and where that officer lives,” Debelak writes. “In at least one instance, we discovered [a Seattle police detective] traveling to Portland for an overnight trip, scanning the license plates of Washingtonians and Oregonians the entire way. Thanks to the number of scans during this trip, we were even able to calculate the officer’s average rate of speed down I-5.”
Inspired by the ACLU findings, Mocek says he brainstormed “a creative way to show people why this is troublesome.” His idea is to catalog all public vehicles in Seattle – police cruisers, utility trucks, even the mayor’s car – then cross-check them with the tracking data obtained by the ACLU to piece together a history of their movements.
“If [a license plate scan] doesn’t match a stolen vehicle they should delete it right away; it doesn’t need to be a permanent record,” Mocek said. “If we can use this information that is being stored to show where the people that have power to change this policy have been all day, maybe it will become clear to them that this is invasive.”
Prior to the ATF encounter, Mocek’s photography had already provoked several confrontations with guards from Federal Protective Service, a division of Homeland Security that safeguards federal facilities. Mocek, according to a police report, had been warned before about “getting in Federal Employee faces and taking pictures.”
Although actions that disrupt law enforcement activity are grounds for a guard to intervene, FPS issued a bulletin in 2011 explicitly stating that snapshots from public sidewalks are not prohibited and photographers should be treated “in a professional and polite manner” unless there is “reasonable suspicion” of illegal or terrorist activity.
The day after his encounter with the angry ATF agent, Mocek was walking along the same stretch of sidewalk when an FPS guard pulled out his personal BlackBerry and started following him, apparently taking pictures or recording video. Mocek responded by making his own recording, which he later shared online. The irony of the situation is apparently lost on the guard, who declines to identify himself on camera.
“Is there a problem, sir?” Mocek asks the officer.
“I don’t know, is there? You tell me,” comes the reply. “Why are you blocking your face, huh?”
“Are you investigating something?”
“No, I’m just taking pictures,” the officer says. “Maybe I’m just out here taking pictures.”
Reflecting on this exchange a few days later, Mocek said he can see why guards might be suspicious of an individual repeatedly taking pictures of a skyscraper that houses offices for various law enforcement agencies, but he says that’s no excuse for the way he was treated.
“We know [the government] is keeping records of all our phone calls and all of our emails,” Mocek says. “But I take photographs on a public street of public vehicles by a public building and they flip out.”