Categories: Global Tech NewsIT

ACLU Sues Over Feds Spending up to $1.4B to Monitor Millions of Americans

Across the country, police departments are receiving millions of dollars from the federal government to scan and store the license plates of law abiding Americans.  Much like the recent controversy over the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) collecting metadata on 99 percent of smartphone-using Americans, the driving concern about these scanners is that they give the feds — and anyone who compromises their databases — detailed maps to track law abiding citizens’ movements.

I. Big Brother is Watching You on the Road

The amount of information collected is staggering in the few instances where statistics is known:

  • Maryland:
    • Jan.-May 2012
    • 29 million license plates read
    • 7,000 plates read by an officer’s vehicle per shift
    • Only 60,000 were suspicious
    • Of these only 1,800 were something more serious than an invalid/expired/suspended registration or emissions violation
  • Jersey City, N.J.:
    • 250,000 citizens
    • 2 million license plates read per year
    • 5 year storage
    • An estimated 10 million plates on record
  • Yonkers, N.Y.:
    • Plate scans stored “indefinitely” as a “reactive investigative tool”
    • Quantity read is unknown
    • Detectives use database to track a suspects past and present movements, based on the plates
  • Mesquite Police Department, Texas:
    • All plate scans since 2008 on file
    • Dept. will delete license plate records older than 2 years, next month
    • Lt. Bill Hedgpeth [spokesman], “There’s no expectation of privacy [on public roads and parking lots].” (Sound familiar?)
  • Minneapolis, Minn.:
    • Jan.-Aug. 2012
    • 4.9 million license plates read
    • Members of the public could ask for information on a specific plate until data was temporarily classified last year
    • Mayor R.T. Rybak’s city-owned cars were tracked at 41 locations
    • Star Tribune reporter was tracked at seven locations

As mentioned, the key driving force behind the embrace of these scanners has been a deluge of funding from the Obama administration.  

Administration officials have refused to specify how much grant money was given to local and state law enforcement agencies for license plate tracking devices, but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates $289M USD and $1.4B USD was funneled through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for the purpose.  The DHS pools mirrored copies of the collected data at so-called “Fusion centers” which various federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies can access.

The ACLU was alarmed to find that only five states:

  • New Hampshire (banned)
  • Maine (restricted to monitoring critical infrastructure — bridges, etc., limits storage)
  • Arkansas (limits storage)
  • New Jersey (state wide guidelines)
  • (Fifth state was unlisted)

… had laws on their books regulating the deployment of readers, use of readers, security provisions for the data, or limitations on how long it could be stored.

Police officers state that transparency about plate scanning interferes with police activities. [Image Source: Keith Baker/WRAL]
The ACLU asked for information in 38 states, but received few replies.  Most police departments scoffed at its request for transparency and clarity, arguing transparency interferes with police activities.

II. New Suit Demands Data From States, Municipalities, and Feds

In response to those rejections, the ACLU has now filed [PDF] a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 1966 (5 U.S.C. § 552) lawsuit.  That should reveal more information on how much money is being spent, where the readers are, and how they’re being used, but will likely require an onerous fight in various jurisdictions to get the data.

The ACLU warns:

It’s not an exaggeration to say that in ten years there will be ALPRs just about everywhere, making detailed records of every driver’s every movement, and storing it for who knows how long. In some cases, we know that the worst-case scenario—vast databases with records of movements of massive numbers of people—is already happening.
A recent Supreme Court case ruled it illegal for police to plant tracking devices on citizens’ cars.  However, ultimately federal, state, and local law enforcement and intelligence agencies have found that they can get almost the same information by using a combination of license plate scans and telephony metadata.  (Of course the Obama administration is also trying to more directly sneak around the GPS tracking ruling, according the ACLU.)

The ACLU is demanding answers about the Orwellian tracking of law abiding citizens. 
The FOIA lawsuit comes as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is reportedly planning a rollout of plate readers across all major federal highways, to fight the “war on drugs”.  While all of the nation’s past three presidents are admit former users of illegal drugs, The CATO institute estimates the government has spent $1T USD in tax money since 1971 [source] to imprison millions of Americans on non-violent drug offenses.  The government has in turn lost an estimated $2T USD in tax revenue from the war on drugs, which combined with the cost of enforcement totals almost a fifth ($3T USD) of the national debt [source].

Soon facial recognition may be added to the police state’s bag of tricks.
Meanwhile the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has received over $1B USD (which of course is largely passed off to defense contractor special interests) to develop facial recognition systems.  By “scanning faces”, the feds could in a decade or two have yet one more powerful dataset to track and potentially terrorize law abiding citizens, in addition to the seized telephone data and the license plate scans.

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