For who-knows-how-many years, the Drug Enforcement Administration has been using Automatic License Plate Recognition software to create a national database of the driving habits of ordinary citizens not suspected of a crime, according to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through the Freedom of Information Act. The documents describe the state of the surveillance effort as of 2009, leaving us wondering just how vast it could be today.
This vehicle tracking program originated near border crossings in the southwestern United States but has grown into a nation-wide project. It is a joint effort between the DEA and local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies throughout the United States. The surveillance program has been alluded to in Congressional testimony every once in a while through the years, but has yet to be fully understood. The documents released by the ACLU, despite being heavily redacted, shine some much-needed light on the interests and priorities of the DEA and federal law enforcement agencies in general. As of 2009, at least 100 license plate readers had been deployed in states like California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Nevada and New Jersey.
And we should be concerned. According to the ACLU:
These records . . . offer documentation that this program is a major DEA initiative that has the potential to track our movements around the country. With its jurisdiction and its finances, the federal government is uniquely positioned to create a centralized repository of all drivers’ movements across the country — and the DEA seems to be moving toward doing just that. If license plate readers continue to proliferate without restriction and the DEA holds license plate reader data for extended periods of time, the agency will soon possess a detailed and invasive depiction of our lives.
Continue reading Every Car, Everywhere: The DEA Tracks Where & When You Drive
Just before Christmas, Muckrock and the ACLU of Massachusetts brought out excellent articles based on a full year of Muckrock’s investigative reporting into Boston PD’s use of automated license plate recognition technology.
ALPR systems automatically photograph and store in a police database the license plates of any car an ALPR-equipped police vehicle passes. The car may be parked or driving. It could be on the Pike, in a driveway, or anywhere a camera can reach. The question was, what does the Boston PD do with the mountain of data once it has it?
Continue reading Boston PD Suspends ALPR Program After Massive Privacy Violation
From the ACLU of Massachusetts:
Boston Police Department bosses want to install GPS monitoring devices in every patrol car, to enable dispatch to more efficiently process 911 calls. But police officers and their union are outraged, saying that the ubiquitous tracking is too invasive of their personal privacy. Tracking the location of officers as they go about their days would reveal incredibly detailed information about their lives, the officers say.
It must be just awful to go about your daily life looking over your shoulder, conscious that your every movement and activity is being recorded and could be used against you. Oh, wait. That’s what the entire American public is already dealing with, in this age of mass electronic surveillance. But the way the police union is hissing’n’flapping about it, it’s almost as if there was something wrong with that. Don’t they know that you have nothing to fear, if you have nothing to hide?
The ACLU’s tack is that if the police don’t like the feeling of being followed, they shouldn’t be pushing for technologies like mass tracking of license plates or cellphone locations. That’s fair enough, but there’s a larger point here also.
Police officers are public employees, and they would be monitored during, and only during, the performance of their duties as public
officials employees. We require elected officials to disclose their votes publicly, and require secrecy for private individuals at the ballot box, even though that’s inconsistent, because public disclosure of how public business is conducted is vital to maintain democratic accountability. In the same way, close monitoring of law enforcement is vital, to ensure that police don’t abuse the vast and special powers society gives them. When you put cameras on cops, complaints about police misbehavior and brutality drop like a stone. We have the right – affirmed by the federal courts in the First Circuit and across America – to record the police in the commission of their duties. The Fourth Amendment constrains the actions of the government, not the actions of members of the general public.
The Boston police may not like it – last week’s PINAC case shows that they’re willing even to threaten people with felonies to avoid public embarrassment over misconduct – but they are not entitled to a high level of privacy protection in their capacity as police officers. That distinction matters. Doxxing police officers’ personal
names and phone numbers and addresses is not cool. But recording them, having them record themselves, and encouraging people to call their office numbers and hold them accountable to the public, is vitally important in order to preserve freedom for the rest of us.
In a week of devastating disclosures about government surveillance, here’s one ray of light.
The ACLU of Massachusetts reports the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court‘s verdict in Commonwealth v. Rousseau. In separate trials, John Rousseau and Michael Dreslinski were each convicted of four charges relating to a spree of burning and vandalizing properties. As part of their case, law enforcement had obtained a warrant to place a GPS tracker on Dreslinski’s truck for 15 days, which was then renewed twice. Two issues came up: whether GPS tracking needed a warrant anyway, and whether Rousseau had standing to challenge the warrant as he had no property interest in Dreslinski’s car.
Continue reading Ray of Light in Massachusetts: Supreme Judicial Court Rules in Commonwealth v. Rousseau that GPS Tracking Requires Probable Cause, Mere Fact of Surveillance Establishes Standing
One of the curious things about digitization is that it allows data to be circulated and shared almost effortlessly. New, cheap ways of sharing and storing data can turn data collection that was previously quite innocent into a serious threat to our ability to be free from government surveillance.
Historically, the law has recognized no constitutional issue with law enforcement collection of license plate numbers, because cars are normally out in public when the numbers are collected. But what happens if cop cars can collect every license plate from every car they pass, moving or parked; check the plate against a database of outstanding warrants; link them to GPS coordinates; and retain the records of which car was where forever, so that they can retrospectively construct a map of your movements?
Well, folks, that bright new day is here. The devices are called “automated license plate readers”, or ALPRs for short. And the ACLU of Massachusetts is supporting a bill that tries to grapple with their implications, and that received its first Joint Committee on Transportation hearing on May 16.
Continue reading Microscope Monday: Analysis of Massachusetts’ proposed License Plate Privacy Act, H 3068 / S 1648