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. (He was acquitted by a jury.)
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.”