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ACLU calls for Massachusetts moratorium on controversial license plate readers

ACLU – 12/14/2013

BOSTON — The ACLU of Massachusetts calls for a moratorium on the use of controversial and unregulated license plate scanner technology in all Massachusetts police departments, following a Boston Globe exposé of problems in the Boston Police Department’s program.

The story, published in today’s Globe, shows that contrary to officials’ claims about why departments need the technology, police routinely do not respond to live ‘hits’ alerting them to the location of stolen cars. This suggests that the program is, as the ACLU feared, largely oriented towards compiling vast databases enabling the warrantless tracking of millions of innocent motorists.

In response to these alarming findings, the Boston Police Department announced it would suspend the program, at least until proper oversight and procedures are put into place.

“The Globe’s investigation into the Boston Police Department’s license plate reader program, based largely on a series of public records requests initiated nearly a year ago, confirms that police departments need outside oversight and guidance in order to responsibly use this powerful technology. We applaud the Boston police decision to suspend the program,” said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty project at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “In light of these disturbing revelations, no police department in the state should continue to use this technology until the legislature passes the License Plate Privacy Act. We need uniform statewide rules for departments’ use of plate readers.”

Currently the Massachusetts State Police and more than 50 cities and towns deploy license plate scanners, which snap photographs of each license plate they encounter, noting the time, date and location, and run the plate numbers against “hot lists” to identify stolen cars, outstanding warrants and other violations. Today, no license plate reader program in the state is subject to outside regulation.

“The License Plate Privacy Act will establish accountability and public transparency requirements to ensure that the kinds of abuses the Globe uncovered at the Boston Police Department are not happening in other cities and towns,” said Crockford. “Technologies that target ordinary Americans going about their everyday lives create tremendous opportunity for abuse, without keeping us safe. We must ensure that the law keeps pace with these new technologies.”

The License Plate Privacy Act allows departments to use license plate readers to identify cars associated with criminal suspects or crimes, while preventing the government from amassing databases containing the historical travel records of millions of innocent people.

“The Globe’s investigation makes crystal clear that departments cannot police their own use of this complex and powerful tool,” said Crockford. “The legislature must step in to provide some basic rules, as well as checks and balances to make sure license plate readers aren’t used for warrantless tracking of innocent drivers. The Joint Transportation Committee should recommend swift approval of the License Plate Privacy Act, the legislature should pass it, and the Governor should sign it into law.”

Advanced surveillance tools can work to promote public safety while simultaneously respecting the privacy and liberty interests that help our Commonwealth thrive, but in order for that to happen the law needs to catch up with the technology. The License Plate Privacy Act strikes the right balance. Police departments statewide should follow Boston’s lead and immediately halt their use of the technology until the legislature acts.

For more on the License Plate Privacy Act, go to:
https://aclum.org/privacy_agenda#LPA

To take action on this issue, go to:
https://ssl.capwiz.com/aclu/ma/issues/alert/?alertid=63008551&type=ML

For more information about automatic license plate readers, go to:
https://www.aclu.org/alpr

December 14, 2013 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Corruption, Deception, Full Spectrum Dominance | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mass Location Tracking: It’s Not Just For the NSA

By Catherine Crump | ACLU | December 12, 2013

Thanks to Edward Snowden we now understand that the NSA runs many dragnet surveillance programs, some of which target Americans. But a story today from Washington, D.C. public radio station WAMU is a reminder that dragnet surveillance is not just a tool of the NSA—the local police use mass surveillance as well.

DC’s Metropolitan Police Department uses cameras to scan vehicle license plates in huge numbers and saves all the data for two years, even though only a tiny fraction—0.01 %—turn out to be associated with any possible wrongdoing.

In 2012, the police in Washington scanned over 204 million license plates. But only 22,655 were associated with some possible wrongdoing (what the chart refers to as “hits”). And a hit isn’t evidence of guilt. It’s evidence your plate was in a database. And your plate may well be in a database because, as we’ve seen in other areas of the country (check out our report on the use of plate readers nationwide), these databases can include people who violated vehicle emissions programs or are driving on suspended or revoked licenses. These people shouldn’t be on the road, but they are also not major offenders.

The key point is this: 99.9 % of the data pertains to people not suspected of wrongdoing. Why should innocent drivers have their movements stored for two full years?

The new report echoes data first unearthed by the ACLU’s local office and revealed two years ago in testimony to local legislators.

This brings us back to the NSA program. What do the NSA and DC Metropolitan Police Department have in common? As we have discussed before, neither appears to be restrained by any sense of proportionality. The data collection is vast, and the gain is either uncertain or negligible. In the NSA’s case, it is storing records about every single phone call each of us makes and keeping it in a database for 5 years, even in the absence of any credible evidence that mass collection is needed to make us safer. (The MPD refused to comment on the plate reader program.)

When it comes to reforming surveillance, it is programs like these that are particularly good targets. While some may be willing to trade privacy for security, here we appear to be giving privacy away and the government either can’t or won’t make the case that we’re getting anything in exchange.

December 12, 2013 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Full Spectrum Dominance | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Police Documents on License Plate Scanners Reveal Mass Tracking

By Catherine Crump | ACLU | July 17, 2013

Automatic license plate readers are the most widespread location tracking technology you’ve probably never heard of. Mounted on patrol cars or stationary objects like bridges, they snap photos of every passing car, recording their plate numbers, times, and locations. At first the captured plate data was used just to check against lists of cars law enforcement hoped to locate for various reasons (to act on arrest warrants, find stolen cars, etc.). But increasingly, all of this data is being fed into massive databases that contain the location information of many millions of innocent Americans stretching back for months or even years.

This is what we have found after analyzing more than 26,000 pages of documents from police departments in cities and towns across the country, obtained through freedom of information requests by ACLU affiliates in 38 states and Washington, D.C. As it becomes increasingly clear that ours is an era of mass surveillance facilitated by ever cheaper and more powerful computing technology (think about the NSA’s call logging program), it is critical we learn how this technology is being used. License plate readers are just one example of a disturbing phenomenon: the government is increasingly using new technology to collect information about all of us, all the time, and to store it forever – providing a complete record of our lives for it to access at will.

Today, we are releasing all of the documents we have received (accessible through this interactive map and this issue page) and are publishing a report, “You Are Being Tracked,” which explains what these documents say about license plate readers: what they are capable of, how they are being used, and what privacy harms they can cause if protections aren’t put in place. We’re also offering more than a dozen recommendations we think local police departments and state legislatures should follow when they pass laws about this technology.

As is often the case with surveillance technology, there are unobjectionable – even beneficial – uses of license plate readers. We don’t object when they’re used to identify people who are driving stolen cars or are subject to an arrest warrant. But they should not become tools for tracking where each of us has driven.

License plate readers capture vast amounts of data on innocent people

Because of the way the technology works – these devices snap photos of every passing car, not just those registered to people suspected of crimes – virtually all of the data license plate readers gather is about people who are completely innocent. Data that we obtained through our records requests illustrates this point vividly.

Why we should worry

Should the government be logging for months, years, or indefinitely the movements of the other 99 percent of people, who are innocent?

The answer to this question is no. License plate reader information can be very revealing. While one snapshot at one point might not seem sensitive, as blankets of plate readers cover our streets, and as the government stores data for longer and longer, the technology quickly morphs into a powerful tracking tool.

As computer technology and storage capacity get cheaper every year, we need to prepare for a future not just where there are a few license plate reader cameras in every town, but one in which there are multiple cameras on every block.

What can location data reveal about people? Trips to places of worship, political protests, or gun ranges can be powerful indicators of people’s beliefs. Is it really the government’s business how often you go to the drug store or liquor store, what doctors you visit, and the identities of your friends? I’m sure all of us can remember something from our past that could embarrass us. If the government comes to suspect you of something in 2020, should it have access to databases stretching back years that could dig up facts about you that previously went unnoticed?

What’s happening now

Law enforcement data-retention policies today are all over the map. While some police departments store data briefly, others keep it for a long time, or indefinitely.

The government doesn’t have a great track record of using this kind of information responsibly. As our report details, the data can be abused for official purposes, like spying on protesters merely because they are exercising their constitutionally protected right to petition the government, or unofficial ones, like tracking an ex-spouse.

Prior to the rise of powerful surveillance technology, it simply wasn’t possible to watch all of the people all of the time. But as these natural limits erode and the impossible becomes possible, we have to make conscious choices about how technology should be used.

What’s the right line with license plate readers?

There is a reasonable way to regulate this technology. The primary law enforcement use of these systems is to take pictures of plates to make it possible to check them against “hot lists” of cars of interest to law enforcement. This can be done virtually instantaneously. While plates that generate a “hit” may need to be stored for investigative purposes, there is no need to store plates for months or years to achieve this purpose.

That is to say, the answer to regulating license plate readers is to have strict limits on how long plate data can be retained. While we don’t recommend a specific cutoff date, we think it should be measured in days and weeks, not months and certainly not years.

To their credit, some law enforcement agencies already comply with this principle. For example, the Minnesota State Patrol deletes all data after 48 hours.

Others keep data for longer, and the rationale given is always the same: Although you can’t tell immediately that someone is committing a crime, some of those people may well be doing something wrong, goes the argument. But in our society, the government doesn’t watch all of us all the time just in case we commit a crime.

This is not just an issue we’ll have to decide in the context of license plate readers, but the most important surveillance issue of our time. Should the NSA collect all data about everyone’s calls, just in case it’s useful to identify a terrorist? Why stop there? Why not store all of the contents of the calls we make as well? And emails? This is not just about communications or public movements. It’s also about what happens inside the home. As electric companies convert to “smart grids” that provide them data about the patterns of your electricity usage, it could well become apparent when you take a shower and whether you run your dishwasher more frequently than others in your demographic profile. … Full article

July 17, 2013 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Corruption, Full Spectrum Dominance, Timeless or most popular | , , , , , , | Comments Off on Police Documents on License Plate Scanners Reveal Mass Tracking

Police “Google Searches” Through Our Location History? No Thanks

By Kade Crockford | ACLU | October 16, 2012

Imagine a searchable database that would enable police or federal agents to instantly track everywhere you’ve ever driven in your car, like a “Google search” of your location over a period of months or even years. According to a law enforcement data manager speaking at a 2010 National Institute of Justice conference, that’s where the government is headed.

A driver location “Google search” is not available to police today because there aren’t enough license plate readers to ensure total information awareness about our driving habits. But if the federal government’s seed funding of the surveillance camera boom over the past ten years is any indication of where we are headed with license plate readers—and we have evidence to suggest a similar process is unfolding—we will get there soon enough.

The police are preparing for it, too. Dale Stockton, Program Manager of the “Road Runner” project at the Automated Regional Justice Information System in San Diego spoke on a panel on license readers at the 2010 conference and explained to police and prosecutors in attendance how best to share license plate data. Mind you, he was talking about the location information of people never accused of any crime.

Aware that a “centralized national giant bucket of license plate reader data…probably wouldn’t stand the court of public opinion,” he suggested a number of backdoor alternatives that would grant the government the same power to spy on us retroactively and with frightening precision. No such centralized data system exists and probably won’t, he said, but he described other paths towards total information awareness regarding license plate data, among them a “regional sharing capability” that in 2010 already existed in San Diego and L.A. Another option is informal data sharing between police departments, Stockton said, encouraging “anyone involved in LPR in the interim to establish an e-mail group and do an e-mail blast when you have a vehicle of interest. This is working in the southwest area of the United States,” he said.

But the regional data sharing and the informal e-mail systems Stockton described pale in comparison to the real endgame, what he called “something akin to a Google.” Not “a storage unit” per se—because remember, such a centralized database “wouldn’t stand the court of public opinion”—but a “pointer system” that would enable agencies to store their own data locally while making it readily available to police departments and federal agencies nationwide at the click of a button.

Central storage of data vs. distributed storage indexed via a pointer system? When it comes to privacy, that’s a distinction without a difference.

As license plate scanners proliferate nationwide, boring questions regarding data retention and sharing take on great importance. Unfortunately, it appears as if the government is taking us in precisely the wrong direction, from the top, down.

We’ve been making a lot of noise about location tracking of late. License plate readers rank high among the technologies that are threatening our privacy with respect to our travel patterns. Where we go says a lot about who we are, and law enforcement agencies nationwide are increasingly obtaining detailed information about where we go without any judicial oversight or reason to believe we are up to no good. Stockton says we have nothing to worry about with respect to license plate reader data and privacy, that that’s all “hocus pocus.” But he’s wrong.

We must ensure license plate readers do not become license plate trackers.

Law enforcement’s advancement of the position that agencies should be able to access data willy-nilly from other departments illustrates precisely why we’ve been worried about this technology. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to read such a position on the Department of Justice’s website; after all, it’s the same DOJ that told a court last week that Americans have “no privacy interest” in our location information as it pertains to our cellphones.

We disagree, and we intend to make sure that a license plate data system “akin to a Google” doesn’t take shape. Nothing less than our freedom on the open road is at stake.

October 16, 2012 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Full Spectrum Dominance | , , , , | 2 Comments