By Tana Ganeva | Alternet
In May, Utah lawmakers were surprised to learn that the US Drug Enforcement Agency had worked out a plan with local sheriffs to pack the state’s main interstate highway, I-15, with Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs) that could track any vehicle passing through.
At a hearing of the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee, the ACLU of Utah and committee members aired their concerns, asking such questions as: Why store the travel histories of law-abiding Utah residents in a federal database in Virginia? What about residents who don’t want anyone to know they drive to Nevada to gamble? Wouldn’t drug traffickers catch on and just start taking a different highway? (That’s the case, according to local reports.)
The plan ended up getting shelved, but that did not present a huge problem for the DEA because as it turns out, large stretches of highway in Texas and California already use the readers.
So do towns all over America. Last week Ars Technica reported that the tiny town of Tiburon in Northern California is using tag reader cameras to monitor the comings and goings of everyone that visits. Despite the Utah legislature’s stand against the DEA, local law enforcement uses them all over the place anyway, according to the Salt Lake City Tribune. Big cities, like Washington, DC and New York, are riddled with ALPRs.
According to the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, ALPRs have become so pervasive in America that they constitute a “covert national surveillance grid.” The civil liberties group has mapped the spread of ALPRs, and contends on its Web site that, “Silently, but constantly, the government is now watching, recording your everyday travels and storing years of your activities in massive data warehouses that can be quickly ‘mined’ to find out when and where you have been, whom you’ve visited, meetings you’ve attended, and activities you’ve taken part in.”
The group not only tracks the spread of the cameras but gives people the tools to contest their installation, or at least bring it up with their representatives. They’re also pushing Congress to initiate hearings “to determine just how vast and intrusive the network has become.” (The ACLU has also sent requests to local law enforcement throughout the country to determine just how many places use the technology and how.)
AlterNet spoke with Carl Messineo, legal director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, about the spread of ALPRs, why the technology is becoming increasingly centralized, and what you can do to have a say in their proliferation.
Tana Ganeva: What exactly are ALPRs and what do they look like?
Carl Messineo: Tag readers are cameras that can be stationary, mounted on poles or traffic signals. Also they can be put on cruisers and vehicles. They can also be hidden. Their function is to take images of passing vehicles, and they have an extraordinary capacity technologically to be able to do so, and to use optical character recognition to identify the license plate number.
The images may include optionally images of the occupants, the driver and passengers, as well. It takes that data, along with the GPS location of the vehicle, the date, the time, etc., and then stores it, matches up the data, and can send it to a centralized data warehousing center where they can log, historically, the movement of your own vehicle as it has passed through and silently triggered any one of the many thousands of tag readers that over the past few years have been put in place without very much public discussion or debate.
A lot of what we do is personal. We don’t want the government to know if we were outside the doctor’s office. Here in Washington, DC you drive into work, and based on where they have located these tag readers, unquestionably your movements are being not only monitored, but then transmitted to a massive database so they can look back years from now and find out what your travels have been.
TG: Where are they? Cities and towns and everywhere at this point?
CM: Yes. In fact, the federal government has, over the past number of years, embarked on a campaign to use federal funds to either subsidize or to give money for tag readers ostensibly for law enforcement purposes all across the country. In Utah, they were presented in much of the same way that the government and law enforcement presents these surveillance technologies; they roll them out as an innocuous way to take a snapshot of passing vehicles and compare them to a stolen vehicle list.
Well, yeah, that’s part of what it does, but then in Utah they came to understand that that was only a fraction of the functionality of the tag readers that were being offered to them for free. And they expressed shock that the government was actually intending to take a historical record of all the cars that passed through on their interstate and send it off to a data warehouse, which is physically located in Northern Virginia, in Merrifield.
TG: Right. Because the data warehouse in Virginia would be really concerned about stolen cars in Utah, right?
CM: Well, exactly. And you know, one of the great concerns, or a number of important elements here — there are virtually no real hard restrictions on the retention of this data, or on the use of the data. And when you aggregate it, the real risk to privacy, the greatest risk to privacy comes through both the historic accumulation of data so that it’s not just a snapshot, but actually a history.
But also, when you aggregate it and cross-reference it with other information such as a person’s credit card transactions, what they purchased, when they purchased and why, you can really create a comprehensive profile of a person’s activities, their associations, even really a personality profile on them. Imagine, they know more about you than you probably know about yourself when they take into consideration your movements, your purchases as reflected in card databases, your credit card transactions, each of which record the time, location, nature of your transactions. And that and your cell phone data, well, what’s left?
TG: It’s interesting, I hadn’t realized that some of them have the capacity to even take snapshots of passengers. They could show sort of associations and, you know, who is in your car and when.
CM: Exactly, of course. And ultimately all of this technology will converge into any type of video recording device. I mean, you can use video and it doesn’t have to be a license plate reader and use scanning software and determine who a person is, and also the license plate scanning. But at this moment in time, they’re heavily reliant upon proprietary corporate purchased cameras.
TG: So I assume that there’s an element here, too, where there’s a big corporate role in the deployment of these products. Probably a lot of companies pushing their wares on law enforcement, as well. Is that something you’ve noticed?
CM: In New York City, with the Domain Awareness Program, what they’re trying to do is replicate for all of New York what now exists in London, which is that you cannot move anywhere without being scanned, recorded, recognized. They have a massive technological ring. So New York City has partnered with Microsoft in this mass surveillance technology where they intend to jointly promote the use and the export of the technology being used in New York City across the country with a third of any profits going to Microsoft. It’s part of a private, public, corporate, industrial surveillance complex.
TG: Now, how would a program like Domain Awareness work with the ALPR networks? Are there conflicts, or are they converging? How does that work? Is this all shared information?