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How Your Movements Are Being Tracked, Probably Without Your Knowledge

License plate readers are getting set up at a brisk pace across the country.
 
 
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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.

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?

CM: Over the past 15 years, the great technological obstacle, which has now been overcome, has been the lack of uniformity in data storage. That is to say that different systems made by different vendors held data in different ways -- much in the same way that originally Macs and Windows systems were not really compatible, but now you can run Mac software on a Windows machine and vice versa. One of the big technological challenges and goals of the government over the past 15 years has been to overcome this lack of uniformity in data storage, and they have overcome it so that the data from different manufactures can now all be combined and shared, and the issue about sharing is very substantial. So when they put this data into a warehouse, a data warehouse, who has access to it? 

Documents that were secured by EPIC, the privacy non-profit, recently revealed that actually there is an arrangement whereby the customs license plate reader data is now being given or shared with private corporations like the insurance industry.

 So, wondering whether every law enforcement entity has access to this is sort of a moot point when actually they have no problem providing this information to private corporations.

TG: How did that happen? What would their justification be for giving insurance companies this stuff?

CM: There’s always a justification. That’s just it. Justifications are easy to come by. The justification here is that it has a benefit to the insurance companies who themselves are trying to weed out fraudulent insurance claims, where people claim their car was stolen, but voluntarily taking it across the border to sell it, for example. You know? So what.  That’s not their information to have.

Nor is it the government’s. When you aggregate this information and know, for example, who has been parked near an abortion clinic, who has attended a political organizing meeting, and for an individual, what are the chain of activities that you have engaged in? That information does not belong to the government. That is just a clear violation, an intrusion of personal privacy. 

You ask, “How does this happen?” Well, it happens because they have been able to silently, quietly fund the technology. And the key to technology is that it is not physically intrusive, right? So you, I, everyone has actually had our vehicles and our movements recorded hundreds, thousands of times, and never felt it. 

So it can happen silently, and that’s what they’re counting on. They’re counting on making this surveillance system a fait accompli, and then they acknowledge it after the facts are on the ground, so to speak, when it’s going to be very difficult to undo, when it is entrenched. 

That’s what they’re counting on. But they’re also deeply, deeply concerned about public backlash and political response. And, in fact, there is language in the privacy report on license plate reader technology that’s put out by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, who acknowledge that the ability to roll out this technology is going to be limited by the public’s willingness to tolerate it. And so they are looking for ways to present it so that it does not create a political response. 

TG: One issue that I think has come up in surveillance efforts, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq, but in the US too, is that when they have so much information, human beings can’t really analyze it efficiently. So they’re getting these mountains and mountains of data, it’s just increasing more and more. What use is it if it’s so much that it’s hard to analyze? Are they improving on that front, as well?

CM: I think that what is clear is that certain things have changed technologically. The storage space, hard drive space has become massively, massively cheaper so that the capacity to store data on a massive, extraordinary scale has become achievable, affordable, and feasible so that they are able to, in fact, now gather all of this movement data, and keep it. And the ability to search the data and mine it.

So they don’t actually need to process every piece of data. What they need to do is be able to store and access every piece of data, which they do have, so that when there is, for example, a targeted group, and that may be the Muslim community, that may be anti-globalization activists, it may be the Occupy Movement, it may be individuals, they have the ability then to on an as-needed basis go back and identify who was at this organizing meeting, who was at the mosque.

And then from there branch out and determine the associations and activities of each of those persons. It’s just sitting there and available. It’s what John Poindexter called “Total information awareness."

TG: Right. So this ALPR technology was originally used in war zones. How did it make it to America?

CM: Well, that is actually not an unfamiliar transition. It is not unusual for tools of political and social control. In this case, the license plate reader technology came out from the UK and Ireland. That’s where it was developed. And then there was a corporate interest, on part of the military industrial complex, to give it a life span, to give it a reason to continue to generate profit for the corporations which market and traffic in this technology. And so then they create, and sell, and present along with, you know, people who are aligned with them, within the government, they create reasons and explanations for why this should be deployed here domestically. 

There is always a pretext, there is always an explanation.  There is always some boogie man to turn to, a threat of violence. All of the counterintelligence program disruption activities of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and 1970 period, early ‘70s were justified by the government as necessary to prevent acts of violence, and to further law enforcement.  So that’s what they do here.  They say, “Look, this can help prevent acts of violence. If we knew this, we could prevent a terrorist attack  If we knew this, we could prevent lawlessness, we could track stolen vehicles.” There are a lot of pretexts for it. 

But ultimately, when you look at the design of these systems, the systems are really massive intelligence networks. A lot of these uses do not require the massive retention and data warehousing that municipalities in the federal government are engaged in. If you look to identify whether a vehicle that just passed a tag reader, for example, is a stolen vehicle, they can send in an alert and have an officer pull it over.  You don’t need to capture and record every single vehicle’s license plates and possibly the photos of the occupants, and then move that into a data warehouse for archiving purposes.  That’s not necessary.

TG: Can you talk a little bit about your project?

CM: Our project, which is located at www.BigBrotherAmerica.org, is a project of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund. It's about tag readers, but it's also about the nation being under surveillance. It is about the confluence of technologies to create an unprecedented threat to privacy. And what we want to do is ... this is a democratic project.  It’s not a top-down project so much as one that engages the public to take control, because a lot of these technologies are being rolled out in a way that requires the cooperation of local municipalities, it requires the District of Columbia government to be willing to put up tag readers all around the district. It requires the sheriffs in Utah to be willing and to be cooperative to put up the tag readers along the interstates that they have jurisdiction over, and there has been success in some areas, limited areas, where people have politically stopped these massive surveillance technologies from being deployed. 

New Hampshire, which, of course, has a strong history of independence and protection of civil liberties, has passed a statute prohibiting this type of mass surveillance technology deployment.

There are steps that people can take at BigBrotherAmerica.org. They can send letters to the Representatives in Congress and demand federal oversight hearings to force disclosure from the executive branch agencies, from the FBI, from the DEA, from ICE, of basic information, like just how big is this network? Have the officials come forward to testify under oath what data they are accumulating, how long they are storing it. What are the restrictions on use so that there is disclosure, and with disclosure of course comes logical restriction. 

We can also use this same process locally to say, you should enact a law, or that it, in fact, is the law, as it very well may be that it’s unlawful to implement, to roll out mass surveillance technology without there being public notice debate disclosure so that people locally can make a decision about just how they want their county or their city to be. This is life-altering technology. And, of course, as part of our campaign, we provide people with resources and tools, posters, we have  graphics and compelling images that people can use to create signs and posters. 

And also with respect to the tag reader use, what we are doing is we’re asking people across the country to identify the locations of the tag readers in their jurisdiction, that they may know of either by personal observation or by local news disclosures, and to submit that information to what is a clearinghouse here at the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, and we have a growing national map, an interactive map of tag reader locations across the country. And people already, since the launch of the campaign a couple weeks ago, have begun to send us additional information about even small localities that we were unaware were utilizing it.

TG: Do you have anything that you wanted to add that we didn’t discuss?

CM: I would say that on a meta level, what the government counts on is this perception of inevitability, that somehow advances in technology inevitably mean the loss of privacy, and that simply is not the reality. Advances in technology can be incredibly useful. We all benefit from advances and technology, and yes, advances in technologies are inevitable. That is what happens.  But the application of technology does not necessarily need to be intrusive. We control technology, we as human beings create technology. There is nothing about technology that makes it an independent breathing being. It is simply a tool and society determines what are the appropriate uses and limitations on use.

So part of the public education campaign is for people to come to understand that not only do we control the technology, but we have the right to restrict it.  That’s what happened with the eavesdropping technology, for example, and wire-tapping technology when it became evident that that technology had developed, then people took actions to restrict its uses. And here we’re at the cusp. We’re really at a turning point. We’re at a turning point because the technology has advanced so radically and rapidly in the past number of decades that if we don’t take action to make the baseline that that mass surveillance technology is something that is allowed to be used only with the consent of the public, if ever.

That’s the baseline. That’s what people should understand, that’s what legislators should understand, and they should put in policies, practices and procedures that reflect that, that say it is prohibited to implement any mass surveillance technology until we have oversight hearings, until there is a public discussion and debate, and an informed citizenry can weigh in and say, you know, that’s just not right. That changes the way our culture is and we reject it.

Tana Ganeva is AlterNet's managing editor. Follow her on Twitter or email her at tana@alternet.org.
 
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