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.
On July 22, at 3:30am, in place of the Stars and Stripes that usually fly over the Brooklyn Bridge, bleached-out American flags appeared instead. Despite three surveillance cameras and allegedly round-the-clock police surveillance, four or five people, their identities still unknown, were able to cover up the lights trained on the flags, take them down, and hoist up their own.
What interests us here is not so much the action itself, as the police reaction.
“If they had brought a bomb up there, it would have been over,” said a high-ranking police source. “If they were able to bring something large enough to cover the lights, then they would have been able to bring some kind of explosive up there.” […] A police helicopter on Wednesday made repeated passes around the Brooklyn Bridge. NYPD radio cars patrolled the spans’ roadways, and police boats scoured the span from the water. New security cameras were also installed, and numerous officers – some from the Intelligence Division and Counterterrorism Bureau – were assigned to foot patrols, walking back and forth between Manhattan and Brooklyn. [CBS]
New York police are so determined to catch the vandals who replaced the American flags atop the Brooklyn Bridge that they’re using an investigative technique known as “tower dumping” to examine all of the cell phone calls made near the bridge around the time the flags were replaced. […] The NYPD is also using social media data, video, facial recognition technology and approximately 18,000 license plate pictures in trying to solve the case. [IBT]
Horrified at the exposure of a security lapse, the NYPD turned its immense resources toward finding the people who had embarrassed them. The local press described them as “vandals” and quoted local residents as wanting them to be “punished to the fullest extent of the law.”
Today’s news in Wired that the federal government is willing to send in the US Marshals to prevent disclosure of how local police departments are using stingrays, makes it seem that what they’re hiding is pretty important.
Our friends at public information service Muckrock.com are launching a new research project to find out exactly what police are doing with this kind of data. Shawn Musgrave describes their project below. We strongly encourage supporters of Digital Fourth to help them fund this important work. We don’t know yet whether any police departments in Massachusetts are using this secrecy-laden technology – wouldn’t you like to find out?
Following on from February’s ruling by Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court that law enforcement needs a warrant to obtain cellphone location information, New Hampshire is now strengthening its laws relating to cellphone searches.
A short and simple bill introduced by Reps. Kurk, Sandblade and O’Flaherty, all of Hillsborough County, NH, provides that a warrant, “signed by a judge and based on probable cause,” is required for “information contained in a portable electronic device”. It’s not clear to me whether that would include cellphone location information or not, because that could be interpreted to not be “contained in” the phone. The House version includes misdemeanor penalties for a “government entity” which violates the act, as well as civil liability. The Senate version keeps civil liability, allowing a person to sue for damages, while removing the criminal penalties. This difference is what will be worked out in a joint committee in the coming week, before it heads to the Governor’s desk.
This is great news for the Fourth Amendment, and it’s good evidence that we can get meaningfully greater protections for our personal data by working through state legislatures.
UPDATE: A warrant is required only for phones that are password-protected. If you live in NH, or are visiting for the weekend, add that password!