How Your Movements Are Being Tracked, Probably Without Your Knowledge
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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.